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Friday, December 2, 2016


When I first went to the audition for Mike Nichols, I was very late. My friend was running lines with me and driving at the same time. I had really prepared for this audition and I got a call that I was so late that Mike Nichols and Neil Simon were about to leave for the day. I think it was around 5:30 when I got there. They were in an apartment in the Sierra Towers on Sunset and Cory. 

I got to their room and it was just the two of them. It was just us three and I had their complete attention. They were sitting on the bed. There was no casting director and no assistants, the vibe was really peaceful in there. I read the two scenes that I had prepared and they looked excited. They asked me to go into the adjoining room. They talked for a minute and then Mike Nichols asked me if I would look at an additional scene. I took a few minutes and went back in and read. The room felt very positive. I had never met Neil Simon before, but my mother had toured the country for two years on the National Tour of “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” I had heard that he would never allow an actor to change a single line. Later, while working with him on “Broadway Bound” for ABC, we talked about all that and he dispelled the notion, saying that he wanted what works for the actor and for the scene. 

I had been living in an ashram on 3rd Street in Santa Monica, right on the Promenade at Broadway. That’s a whole other story, but it was an incredible experience to live in L.A., go out for auditions and spend the rest of the times pursuing a path that was spiritual. 

former location of ashram

After I booked “Biloxi Blues,” I packed up and went to Santa Fe, where I worked with a dream interpreter whom I had met through acting coach Sandra Seacat. I spent a month in New Mexico and we did dreamwork on every scene in the script, using the guidance that came through my subconscious through the symbols and dynamics in my dreams. We worked about 8 hours a day. This became a very spiritual experience for me and I felt connected to the land there.

 We would drive out past Galisteo and I would climb up the buttes to find items, objects that represented what each scene was about. I had small boxes that I filled with items; some from the earth, some man made. I had also purchased very large very old pictures from India that had been at the Santa Monica ashram, as the ashram was going to close. I had the pictures shipped to Fort Smith, Arkansas, where we were going to shoot. 

In Santa Fe, I bought a 1966 Red Chevy Chevelle convertible. It had a rebuilt and modified 327 with 3 on the floor, and it burned rubber in second and third gears. I drove through a snowstorm on my way out of Santa Fe. Night was falling and the snowflakes were huge and were so thick that I could barely see in front of me as I said goodbye to Santa Fe.

Fort Chaffee

 I arrived in Fort Smith. We did a cast read through and they were surprised at my reading. I had done a lot of work and my reading was different than it had been at my audition, months earlier. But I felt connected and I believed in it. Neil Simon came up to me and asked me just one thing, “please don’t do Woody Allen in this movie.” It was clear to me that he was making a mistake. The person I was doing was my grandmother, an authentic Jewish woman from Brownsville, Brooklyn. I loved her and knew I was going to stick with the choice. Later Mike Nichols would say the same thing and I really was at a loss. Woody Allen had created a blanket generalization of a Brooklyn Jew. Any New York Jews know that there are some sounds that belong there, originate from there and my Grandmother was living proof of this wonderful world—the real deal. However, turning my Grandma into a male character brought the character (Epstein) in a direction that caused misgivings from production. I had seen Barry Miller play the role on Broadway and his work seemed to be in a similar realm. Somehow I didn’t get fired. But I did get into trouble. I drove my Chevy convertible to and from rehearsal each day. It really roared. 

One day Penny Miller asked me to take her home, she wanted a ride in the car. She got in the car after rehearsal, the top was down and I showed off.  By the time I got home, there was a message on my answering machine. “You are no longer allowed to drive your car to or from set. A cast van will pick you up tomorrow morning.”

We were shooting in WW2 barracks that had also been used in Soldier’s Story. One barrack was split into rooms by temporary walls they had built and each one was a good size to hang out in and prep for shooting. Sometime toward the end of the first week of rehearsal we received rewrites from Neil Simon. The big scene I was to have with Sergeant Toomey had been given to Matthew’s character. Perhaps it was because of my characterization, but they could easily have replaced me, so I cannot say for sure. I decided to include the possibility that since it was Mathew’s movie (this was just after “Ferris Beuller’s Day Off” had come out), it made no sense to them to keep him out of one of the longest and most important two character scenes in the script.  

It was easy to like Matthew, he was polite, self-effacing, funny, intelligent and a gentleman. I learned a lot from being around him and watching him work. He did already have some habits of delivering lines that he had uttered many many times on Broadway. Some of the other actors were from the Broadway production, which seemed to ground us all and they already had their rhythms.

Our first day of shooting was the scene where Sergeant Toomey comes out of his barracks and calls the platoon to order. The casting of Chris Walken seemed odd to me, as the character of Toomey had been a large burly man on Broadway.  Walken was slim and his wardrobe seemed baggy on him. At that time, Walken was famous but not as popular as he is today. When I spoke to Walken he seemed like a friendly and quiet person. I had seen movies like “Deer Hunter” many times. I noticed that he had cuts all over his hands which I asked him about and he said he was an avid grower of roses and spent a lot of time in the garden with them. He said it was the thorns that cut his hands.

Once the shot was all set up, "quiet on the set!" was called.  Right before "rolling," Walken came out and shouted at the top of his lungs while moving his body side to side, “Wocka!! Wocka!! Wocka!!” [From the Muppets character Fozzy Bear] He did this a couple of times at the top of his lungs. I could feel myself and the other cast members tense up and become totally thrown when Mike Nichols called “action!” Walken suddenly seemed completely unpredictable —who knew what the hell he was going to do next. He used this technique many times, and for those of us who had seen his films, it was all sufficiently scary to make us ready to do whatever the hell he told us to do. And that was how he overcame the obstacle of owning that role.  Before being called to set, I could hear him in his room screaming into his pillow over and over, working on the voice for Sgt. Toomey.  He did this a lot before shooting. He often carried an apple and sometimes an onion which he ate like an apple, putting them down right before shooting.

Mike Nichols asked Universal to send film prints of vintage films and he screened these for us each Sunday evening. I can’t remember all of the films, but one was "Camille." He talked to us about each film. His talk about this film revealed that he deeply loved this picture, but watching him while it played was really amazing, because his whole body responded to this movie as it played, his feelings were intense and they were deep, you could feel it palpably in the room. 

Sgt. Toomey once punished Epstein (me) by ordering him to clean the entire latrine with a toothbrush. I was a young New York method trained actor and those latrines from WW2 were old and large. Yes, on my own time I did clean the entire latrine, top to bottom with a toothbrush and comet cleanser. It took many hours, but I didn’t want to lie. I wanted the knowledge that I had done what was described, my belief system needed that commitment.

There was a scene where all of the guys were to line up because Toomey was coming in and the moment before that some form of confrontation had happened between me and Matt Mulhern’s character. 

Matt Mulhern: 6' 3"

Before the first take I gave him a light punch in the arm, which probably seemed like having a flea bump into him, he is very tall and was all quite strong. Well, for the second take I did it again, a little harder this time. He never mentioned it. For the third take I punched him harder and suddenly he blew up. [I'm not saying he was wrong.] Now it felt dangerous, he was really pissed and started coming after me, he didn’t seem to care at all that we were about to shoot and I was in his cross hairs, then…Mike Nichols called “Action!” and in the midst of the explosive chaos we all got into the position of attention, just as the scene called for and Walken came in and saw a cast that was caught in secret conflict, just as the scene called for. It was Mike Nichols that not only saved it but also incorporated it all into the work. 

 One time the guys wanted to play basketball. I was never good at basketball. The High School of Performing Arts had no sports, unless you count ballet and modern dance. The guys were going to play and they needed me to play. And so the boys from "Biloxi Blues" played and it became clear to me that they were very competitive and were taking it too seriously. I  started being a mock announcer a la Jerry Lewis. Every few minutes the ball was passed to me and I literally ejected it toward a teammate as fast as I could just so I wouldn’t get in trouble. I narrated the entire thing out loud and I had a really good time doing it, although no one, not one of them ever acknowledged it in any way. That was the only time I ever played that game.

One time I was hanging out in Matthew’s hotel room and I noticed he had taped a picture of Marlon Brando to the wall. I asked about it. Mathew said Marlon Brando was his idol and that he had a dream of working with him some day. I never forgot his focus and his humility as he spoke of Brando. I remembered this when he made “The Freshman” with Brando years later.

One time Mike Nichols asked to come into my barracks. I had not let anyone in that time. Mike came in and he wanted me to tell him about each picture that I had in there, each Guru, each person. I told him about an ashram I had stayed at in upstate New York and he seemed to really listen. He seemed genuinely open to it and there was no fear or judgement coming from him. We talked for awhile and then he went back to the set. 

Another time Mike invited me to where he was staying. We talked for awhile about the movie and he was asking me about myself. As I talked with him, he went in another room and came back with a joint. He asked me if I wanted to smoke. This was a tense moment because although while I had smoked my share while growing up in the New York City, I had also vowed to myself not to smoke as long as I was shooting. I felt like it was unprofessional for me, although I knew there were others getting high in the cast. I was young and being rigid, so I didn’t get high with Mike Nichols. While I’m proud of the young me for staying true to my principles, I have wondered at times what the conversation might have been like if I had understood how rare such a moment is in this life. I did get to tell him that I saw Catch 22 as a kid in the Tinker Street Cinema with my mother and that it really affected me. 

Passover arrived and Mike, Neil, Matthew, Marc Jacobs 
and I drove over to Holiday Inn in Fort Smith and had our Passover meal. 

The scariest experience during the shoot was the scene where Walken is supposed to be drunk and is carrying a pistol. He is mad at my character because I exposed him as a liar. Well, we were all assembled but we didn’t see Walken. He was hiding in his character’s office, his first position. We started rolling sound and camera and he didn’t come out. He was checked on and we rolled again. It turned out that he was plastered. He was so drunk that he could not walk without holding onto the posts along the way. By the time he made it to our position, we could see that he was so shitfaced, his lines were gone. He stood bobbing and hovering without his dialogue. The script supervisor would feed him one line at a time, then one of us would say our line and the script supervisor would say a line for him and he would simply repeat it. You have to remember that he has an actual military weapon in his hand and it is genuinely scary as hell.  Questions. Has he loaded it? How method are we gonna get? Was he in control of himself? We had no answers, only that he and Mike were friends and the highest level professionals. Another thought was...The guy from “Deer Hunter” who shoots himself in the head was standing in front of us and is walking a very fine line. 

Matthew and I were very very scared.  Walden went to the edge, he took us with him, it was not comfortable but it was a ceremony sorts. 

Looking back at my performance, I will say that I am proud of certain things I stuck to, but over all I did not have trust. Trust of myself, of the process, of the moment, of the camera. I worked very hard, too hard.  But some people do respond to the performance and that is nice. I was 21. I would later work with Neil Simon again, and that is where I got to spend more time with him alone and to talk to him. 

Sometime during the next year I went to the ashram in upstate New York. They were having a meditation intensive and it was crowded. The energy felt amazing and I was so grateful to be there. All the people whose pictures I had hung on my wall in the barracks in “Biloxi Blues” were also hanging on the walls there. This was the spiritual energy I was trying to create in my barracks. Maybe that was what drew Mike Nichols to ask me about it then. The next thing I knew was that as I stood in the ashram, I saw him--Mike Nichols. He had come to the ashram with a friend. 

His heart was very big, his humanity was so inclusive and I felt that his art was so far beyond most others. I did not ever get the sense from being around him that he saw people as better than or less than. I sensed that he knew that each person was a unique expression and he listened to each person that he worked with so fully. He treasured actors very highly. I saw this on set one day when the crew was setting lights just after the actors had done a rehearsal on set with him. The actors stayed on set. The crew got loud and Mike raised his voice at them. I would say he yelled. He told them that the actors were on the set and that soon these actors would be in front of the camera. He asked the crew to be mindful and to work more quietly. Suddenly being an actor meant more than it had before. Few people with power in this business stay up for the actor. Mike Nichols actually assumed we were not just actors, we were artists. He seemed to value each of us, not for superficial reasons but for profound reasons. Working with him elevated all of us.

~ Corey Parker

Fort Chaffee 1940s

Mike Nichols haunting choice for the ending.
When we shot the ending, we were going off to war. 
Later the voice over was changed to the war ending 
and our going straight home. 

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