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Mr. Beaks And Nick Mancuso Remember Arthur Hiller's NIGHTWING!

For any up-and-coming actor in the late 1970's, the opportunity to make their feature debut as the lead in a film directed by Arthur Hiller would've been too good to pass up. For Nick Mancuso, who was working with a fella named Tennessee Williams at the time, it was something of a flattering inconvenience. It took some convincing, but after numerous overtures and the promise of a rewrite, Mancuso finally agreed to star in Hiller's NIGHTWING. Envisioned by producer Martin Ransohoff as "JAWS on Wings", the film swapped out one killer shark for thousands of marauding vampire bats (all of which are carrying the bubonic plague). This alone would've gone over well with audiences, but, as with a few other monster movies of the period (John Frankenheimer's PROPHECY in particular), Hiller and his screenwriters attempted to class up the genre by addressing the rape of the environment and the continued mistreatment of Native Americans. Though they still borrowed heavily from the JAWS template, they also spent time dramatizing the conflict between traditional-minded Native Americans who want to preserve the sanctity of the land, and those in their community who'd prefer to develop it. So, rather than depict the bats as an inexplicable, insensate force of evil, Hiller decided to deploy them as the avenging instrument of an angry God. That's a lot to pile on top of an innocent genre picture, but the performers come at the material with everything they've got. Mancuso plays Youngman Duran, the principled sheriff who locks horns with Stephen Macht's Walker Chee, a ruthless businessman who's hot to exploit his tribe's oil-rich land. There's also Kathryn Harrold as a compassionate nurse (who's romanced by Duran), Strother Martin as a wantonly capitalistic storeowner, and David Warner as a Quint/Hooper hybrid who believes the vampire bats are the "quintessence of evil". And then you've got the bats, which were designed by the great Carlo Rambaldi. It's a strange mash-up of high and low aspirations, and it's one critics and audiences alike rejected when the film was released commercially on June 22, 1979 (against THE MUPPET MOVIE and THE MAIN EVENT). But as with so many box office bombs of that era, NIGHTWING ultimately found a following thanks to heavy rotation on HBO. And now, thirty years after its ignominious debut, it is receiving a loving 30th Anniversary screening at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles. That anyone looks back on the film with any kind of affection seems to amuse Mancuso, who quickly went from movie star on the make to critically acclaimed actor with 1981's TICKET TO HEAVEN. From there, it's been an incredibly steady career boasting hundreds of credits: he was the lead on Stephen J. Cannell's STINGRAY (for NBC), CIA Director Tom Breaker in both UNDER SIEGE movies, and (one of my personal faves) and mobster Antonio Serrano in RAPID FIRE. He remains an incredibly welcome addition to any film, and yet, despite all of those credits, a vastly underutilized talent. But it all (essentially) started thirty years ago with NIGHTWING. Take it away, Mr. Mancuso...

Nick Mancuso: This was really my first Hollywood movie. I had been a stage actor before that for about ten years, mostly in Canada. At the time they sent me to script, I was in Atlanta, Georgia working with Tennessee Williams on one of his last plays. I was opening the show and got an excited call saying that they were interested in me. Lynn Stalmaster, the renowned casting director, had tested me. They were having trouble casting the lead, and I couldn't come because I was opening the play. They said they were going to fly me out, and I said "No, I'm opening." They said "Well, you've got five days." And I said, "No, I'm opening." This took them quite by surprise. At that time, I was what you would call a dedicated actor; opening night was opening night. Anyway, [Martin] Ransohoff and Arthur Hiller came out to Atlanta, Georgia. I had read the piece, and I thought, "Well, this isn't going to work as a story because it doesn't have the essential dramatic conflict." But Marty and Arthur came out to Atlanta and talked me into it. Steve Shagan was going to rewrite it, and he had just won an Oscar for Jack Lemmon with SAVE THE TIGER. And therein began the saga of NIGHTWING - which I think was later spoofed by Blake Edwards in a film called S.O.B. I think the piece was called NIGHT WIND.

Beaks: It's funny that he would pick that. Henry Mancini did the score for NIGHTWING and, of course, S.O.B.

Mancuso: Now there's a piece of irony. You know, Steve Shagan was a first-rate screenwriter. He did THE FORUMLA. And Martin Cruz Smith wrote the novel it was based on. I think it was a New York Times bestseller. It had all the great ingredients: it had a great director, a great composer and a great cinematographer [in Charles Rosher, Jr.]. Carlo Rambaldi did the special effects, and he had just done KING KONG. And, of course, Strother Martin. And Kathryn Harrold, myself, David Warner, Stephen Macht... it had all the ingredients for what they thought was going to be a big hit. But it had everything except for an essential dramatic conflict. (Laughs) It had everything except for one thing: a story. I think if it were done today, it would be completely different. The special effects would be computer generated. I don't think that making your villain a vampire bat carrying the Bubonic Plague, no matter what you do, is going to work. Marty kept calling it "JAWS on wings". He thought it was going to make over $100 million. It was released in 3,000 theaters, ran for five days, and was pulled. That was the end of it. And I have heard nothing of it since. I had no idea it had been on HBO, actually.

Beaks: That's where I watched it.

Mancuso: Did it play a lot?

Beaks: It would come and go. It would play in bursts. It was one of those things where you'd come home from school, turn on the TV and NIGHTWING would be on again. Killer bats. These are things kids love.

Mancuso: It is a kind of children's movie in a way, isn't it?

Beaks: It's interesting. You know, when we watched these movies [on cable], we'd often start them halfway through. And the bats don't show up in NIGHTWING until the forty-five minute mark. So I just always assumed it was killer bats from start to finish. When I caught up with the film last week, I was surprised to find it was a slow build.

Mancuso: It's a very, very long first act.

Beaks: Right. With Arthur Hiller and the writers really trying to elevate the genre and make it about the Native American plight.

Mancuso: The subtext was ecological in nature. And there was a kind of spiritual component to the piece. You have that great line, which I guess Steve wrote, where Duran says "What kind of God kills his own people?" That's going to go down in my canon of lines over the years. (Laughs) I was a young actor, but I had already done twelve years of theater. I was one of the founding members of the early Canadian theater movement here in Toronto in the '60s. We had done tons and tons of theater, original plays... but people went on to other things. Des McAnuff just did JERSEY BOYS on Broadway. Michael Ondaatje... I did his COLLECTED WORKS OF BILLY THE KID, and he went on to write THE ENGLISH PATIENT. We had a slew of people that I had been working with, and I guess I was a pretty seasoned stage actor. And I had done some film and television up here - for CBC, and some of our plays had been filmed. But, really, [NIGHTWING] was my first Hollywood film. It was my first time at bat. I knew that this was it. Bases loaded and all that. (Laughs) But the ball did not go out of the park.

Beaks: Well, the lure to do the film must've been very strong. Arthur Hiller was a major director at the time.

Mancuso: Arthur's a wonderful man and a wonderful director. Absolutely. He was marvelous to work with. It was a lovely shoot, working with him. Plus, in those days, we had a pretty lax schedule. It was only eight or nine hours a day, I think; it was the tail-end of the old movie system, where things were still done quite slowly and methodically. You know, they started the beating of the drums when it was being cut. I was doing whatever they called Entertainment Tonight in those days - and the movie magazines and the photographs with the shirt off and being touted and hailed as the next Hollywood star. And I remember thinking to myself, "They must know something I don't know." I remember looking through the camera going, "This camera must do things. It must do some magic things that I don't understand." And the big kicker was, of course, Dallas, Texas, where it previewed. Almost all the Columbia executives were there. I was there, and Arthur was there... it was "Sneak Preview Saturday Night at the Movies". We were all in the back of this huge theater - I think it held about 2,000 people - and I remember watching the first ten minutes, and I thought, "Wow, this is great! They do know what they're doing in the movies!" And after about fifteen or seventeen minutes, it fell flat as a pancake and lay there for the rest of the evening. I just sunk deeper and deeper into my seat. Being a stage actor, you know whether an audiences likes it. And at the end of it, they all got up and shuffled away. It was a gigantic flop. And Marty turned to me and said, "It's a good sign, kid! Nobody went to the bathroom!" (Laughs) And I thought, "Oh, my god!"

Beaks: That was also Kathryn Harrold's first feature.

Mancuso: Kathryn had been a soap actress up to that point. It was one of her first. And, I believe, it was one of Strother Martin's last.

Beaks: It was right at the tail-end.

Mancuso: He was a great actor. One of my fondest memories was listening to him recite Walt Whitman on a mesa in New Mexico. We had some spectacular locations. I guess [NIGHTWING] has become a kind of cult film in some ways. There is something in it. And I think you probably hit it on the head: there's an undercurrent of spiritual ecology. Maybe it did have some impact on the audience.

Beaks: You shot most of it on location in New Mexico, but--

Mancuso: Yes, right outside of Albuquerque. But the interiors, the big caves, were done in Burbank.

Beaks: That was apparently a huge set.

Mancuso: A giant set. And the ending - with Duran and the fires and all of that - we shot bluescreen, I think. I remember shooting several months later, somewhere outside of L.A., the reaction. That was shot several months after [principal photography]. There must be something to it. I'm very curious to see how the audience reacts thirty years later.

Beaks: I think a lot of the curiosity derives from it not being available for so many years. People have these vivid childhood memories of it, and they're interested to see how the film plays now.

Mancuso: Maybe it will find a whole new audience among young viewers. Who knows?

Beaks: NIGHTWING was also of that era when actors could play characters of other ethnicities with relative impunity.

Mancuso: This was years before the revolution of Indian actors, which was triggered by DANCES WITH WOLVES and others. But at that time, they had a hard time casting Indians to play Indians. That was part of the problem. And being ethnic... my theory is that you start your Hollywood career either playing a cowboy or an Indian. And I started playing an Indian. I think Burt Reynolds did, too. If you had dark hair or dark skin, you played Indians. Actually, I'm writing a biography: NEVER PLAY THE INDIAN. (Laughs) You want to play the cowboy in Hollywood. Of course, those days are long gone. But in the old days, it was mostly Italians or Jews that played Indians - or Arabs or other dark-skinned people. There were a few around, like [Jay Silverheels]. But Marty and Arthur needed a leading man type to play the role. And I insisted to Marty even before I began that I spend time with the Indians in New Mexico. And I did. I went out there and hung around some of the communities. And one of the things I was most proud of was that some journalists I knew who had been raised in that era told me that I did manage to capture the spirit of that part of the world. As a Canadian at the time, that was interesting. I did spend time trying to get what that energy was. So that was something I think I managed to pull off - although I didn't get very good reviews. Years later when I did a picture called TICKET TO HEAVEN, and was getting nominated for acting awards all over the world... they were going for an Oscar nomination and it would've gotten a Golden Globe nomination, but they did not get the piece in on time. The president of the Golden Globes wanted to give me a nomination, but he couldn't. But I remember some reviewers saying they were quite surprised that I was the same actor who had [been in NIGHTWING]. But I'm an actor. I've played hundreds of parts over the years, a variety of roles. I went on to do STINGRAY, television and martial arts movies and all kinds of stuff. I'll give you the five stages of the actor's career. "Stage Number One" is you play the ingenue. "Stage Number Two" is you play the hero - which was the NIGHTWING period. Then you play the villain for a number of years. Then you play the loser. And then you play the monster. These are the five stages. And I've been playing mostly in horror movies lately.

Beaks: Speaking of monsters, did you ever have to deal with actual bats on set?

Mancuso: No. It was all reacting to POVs and eyelines. I can't remember if we did bluescreen or greenscreen at the time. There were some sequences shot at the studio where we were in that cage. That was bluescreen. Reacting to imaginary attacks from Bubonic-carrying bats.

Beaks: And David Warner--

Mancuso: Oh, David Warner! He, of course, did one of the great Hamlets in the '60s. He also did a classic from the '60s called MORGAN. Have you seen it?

Beaks: I've never seen MORGAN.

Mancuso: It's a fabulous film. Wonderful. He was very much part of the spirit of the '60s coming out of London at the time, the Chelsea thing. And I knew of David because he was in the theater community. He had done his generation's Hamlet, the "Hippie Hamlet", in '65 at the National Theatre. He's a great stage actor as well as a film actor.

Beaks: Was there an official premiere for NIGHTWING?

Mancuso: The only premiere we had was the sneak preview in Dallas. That was it. There was nothing else after that. I had done interviews before that and after the film was released - and I know it was released here in Canada as well. But it came and went and disappeared into the great oblivion.

Beaks: Until now.

Mancuso: Until now! Where it has been miraculously regurgitated. It's very strange.

Beaks: I'm fascinated to see how it plays with this audience. There's going to be a heavy nostalgia factor.

Mancuso: I hope there will be a lot of laughs, because I think it's entertaining. It's a committed film. And certainly the quality of the people involved was pretty high. Like I said, the central problem was "Logan's Law". Do you know "Logan's Law"?

Beaks: Why does that sound familiar?

Mancuso: Joshua Logan, the famous director from the '50s?

Beaks: Oh, yes!

Mancuso: He had been one of Broadway's most successful directors. And the story was that he had directed and put together this play on Broadway that had the best of the best: the best writer, the best actors, the best set designers... the best of everything. It opened and closed the same night. And it threw Logan into a great confusion as to why it flopped. So he went to Harold Clurman, and he said, "Give me a list of all the great plays in history, going back to the time of the Greeks!" And he read them all over a six month period. He studied them. And he came up with "Logan's Law", which is very simple: if the protagonist does not undergo a transformation in the story, you don't have a story. He can't be the same guy who began the movie. Having fought the obstacles and the battles, he's a changed man by the end of the movie. That's what makes a film story. That's what makes any story.

Beaks: Well, that's Joseph Campbell, too. "The Hero's Journey".

Mancuso: Exactly. "The Hero with a Thousand Faces". All of that. But it's amazing. As William Goldman said in ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE, "Nobody knows nothing."

I have interviews with Stephen Macht and cinematographer Charles Rosher, Jr. on the way. Until then, make sure you get your tickets for the midnight screening of NIGHTWING this Friday at the Nuart! Faithfully submitted, Mr. Beaks

Readers Talkback
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  • Feb. 25, 2009, 6:10 p.m. CST

    First baby!

    by The real Jack Bauer

  • Feb. 25, 2009, 6:25 p.m. CST

    WB should remake nightwing

    by IndyAbbey Jones

    but reboot it to be about the robin character

  • Feb. 25, 2009, 6:31 p.m. CST


    by Geekgasm

    I have never seen this film. I am duly ashamed.

  • Feb. 25, 2009, 6:32 p.m. CST


    by Geekgasm

    I totally missed my chance to make a dumbass Batman joke. Fuck!

  • Feb. 25, 2009, 6:56 p.m. CST

    Hey beaks

    by Stengah

    How ya doin bro? cool uuh interview and shit.

  • Feb. 25, 2009, 10:45 p.m. CST

    Another fascinating interview...

    by Smilin'Jack Ruby

    ...another reason why AICN is going to lose your ass to the NYTimes or, dare I say, the Guardian? But now really wondering what the fuck Logan play Mancuso's referring to. "It's You I Want," maybe? And speaking of theater, did Macht talk about "Vivat! Vivat Regina!"? Great interview. Almost makes me want to revisit "Nightwing," though who needs one more childhood bit of fun ruined by an adult viewing?

  • Feb. 25, 2009, 11:17 p.m. CST

    Now let's see TICKET TO HEAVEN rediscovered!

    by Paul T. Ryan

    A truly great performance from Mancuso as a Jewish kid brainwashed by a cult. It's stuck in public-domain hell at the moment and deserves a decent DVD.

  • Feb. 26, 2009, 12:01 a.m. CST

    interview was great

    by frank cotton

    film was OK

  • Feb. 26, 2009, 6:57 a.m. CST

    I thought these were over...

    by Bill Brasky

    Stupid fucking rehash reviews of shit that no one cares about. Shut the fuck up already.

  • Feb. 26, 2009, 8:14 a.m. CST

    Dick Grayson needs a TV show.

    by Gatsbys West Egg Omlet

    thats all the Nightwing news i've got.

  • Feb. 26, 2009, 11:32 a.m. CST

    good interview with a fine character actor

    by duanejones

    this is almost as good as the shock cinema interview with mr. nick a few years back -- and sc is absolutely my gold standard for cult figure interviews, so good on you, beaks. mancuso deserves better roles than the antichrist in those lame _left behind_-esque christian eschatological potboilers. along with _ticket_, track down nick in _heartbreakers_ with peter coyote, and the leonard cohen-scripted _night magic_, with mr. nick providing his own singing.

  • Feb. 26, 2009, 11:42 a.m. CST

    Thanks, Mr. Beaks!

    by The Reluctant Austinite

    I, somehow, think you must be writing this just for me. How many other "Nightwing" fans are out there in AICN land? Great interview and some keen insight on why the movie failed to find its audience from Mancuso. I hope you get to post the others.

  • Feb. 26, 2009, 4:13 p.m. CST


    by Stuntcock Mike

  • Feb. 27, 2009, 2:55 p.m. CST

    Rapid Fire

    by dastickboy

    Nick Mancuso was awesome in Rapid Fire, glove-biting and all.