"Orson Welles on one": An Interview with Nick Bosustow
Minimal parts of this interview have been edited for clarity and comprehension. Interview occurred on June 14, 2021.
Caleb Allison: So as part of my research I found this article from 1957 from Maclean's magazine. They had interviewed your father, and they claimed that at seventeen you had a job as a dishwasher and your brother, Tee, was a postman. Does that sound right?
Nick Bosustow: Well, those were our high school jobs. Now it's a franchise, Love’s [Wood] Pit BBQ. It was just one little place on a street corner and, actually, both of us washed dishes, but he also and I did as well, delivered mail during Christmas. Those were just teenage jobs that you did to pay the gas in your car.
Caleb: Well, that got me thinking about how you were introduced to filmmaking and animation and if there were any expectations that you would go into that field.
Nick: You know that's a very interesting question cause I remember going to high school and people said, “Well, you'll take over your dad's company…” They said, “Oh no, that's what sons do, they take over,” and it had never occurred to me. My brother definitely wanted to go into film. He went to UCLA film school, and he did short films since he was in his early twenties. [He] got a group of people, like young filmmakers do, and did tons of all kinds of extraordinary films. Some were actually terrible, but that's how you learn. I went to business school and then I went in the Army. After that I interviewed for a job at Columbia Pictures in New York because that was dad's distributor. [He said], “Oh, you gotta meet these people,” and they said, “Well, we'd love to start you in the mail room.” I didn't tell him but I didn’t want to work at Columbia in the mailroom and turned that down. Lo and behold, I come out of the Army and go to Los Angeles and there were no other jobs. Then I went to CBS and they said, “Mailroom.” I said, “Yup, I'll take that.” So, that's how it happened.
I was certainly influenced and sort of mesmerized by the whole thing. If you talked to almost any second-generation people, they say, “Well, he was just my dad. He came in and we sat down and had dinner.” If you live with these people, they don't carry this incredible stuff that now we're going to talk about fifty, sixty, seventy years later. You step back and I'm really still overwhelmed with my dad's career and some of the things that he had to go through to keep the studio together, and the people they worked with, my God. If you worked for my dad, you turned into a famous filmmaker. There was a slew of people that started their own companies.
Caleb: So it just sort of snuck up on you slowly?
Nick: Yeah, let's say it is very seductive. Even in the mailroom of CBS I was surrounded with stars, television stars on the elevator. You go, “Oh, this is so cool.”
Caleb: You hear stories about where people start their careers in that field and it's the mailroom!
Nick: I actually had a skyrocketing career. I went from the mailroom at CBS to the mailroom at Universal. It was pretty breathtaking. You could not get into the mailroom back then without a bachelors, but it was sort of part of the culture. All the agencies, William Morris, ICM, every single agent, everyone started in the mail room.
I was working in the mailroom at Universal, then I got a job as a business manager at a law firm and they represented talent. The division that I worked with was the bookkeeping division, for lack of a better word, and my job was to go out and get young talent. It wasn’t pimping in the sense of sex but you just gave up all your integrity and you would just do anything to close the deal. I found myself doing all kinds of weird things cause that was my job, to bring in clients.
Caleb: Just where you cut your teeth and did your time.
Nick: Somewhere in somebody's mind they said, “There's an awful lot of people who want to get jobs here. I'll tell you what, send them to the mail room and if they can hang out in the mail room, then people get to know them.” And of course, it is the greatest job because you meet everybody cause you're delivering everybody's mail. It really is quite a great system and if somebody said they're too good for the mailroom, that's okay, but you can't work at Universal or CBS or Columbia Pictures, and on and on.
Caleb: Well, speaking of seeing stars around the mail room, there's two people that stood out to me, one is, of course, your collaborations with Orson Welles and the sing-song narration Roberta Flack did for John Henry. I wondered what it was like working with them or if you have any other defining memories of collaborators.
Nick: Orson Welles and Roberta Flack will be very quick. I never met them. Orson Welles was hosting the Dick Cavett Show and we already had a narrator recorded for Is It Always Right to Be Right? (1970), but everybody said, “Oh my God, this guy is a great narrator.” Not exactly an original idea, and of course, we couldn't get through to him. So, we took an eight by ten, black and white glossy [photo] of the entire staff and sent it to him. I said, “We’ll autograph this picture if you autograph yours,” or some stupid thing and we sent him the script. It said, “Could you narrate this and give us a call?” Never heard from him and the film was in final editing, and the famous line is, “Orson Welles on one.” Of course I thought the guy was joking and I pick up and fortunately I kept my cool, and here’s that voice. I mean, it's unbelievable. He said, “It's done.” I said, “I beg your pardon.” He said “I'm at the Beverly Hills Hotel and it's done. It's on the counter.” And I said, “Oh, Mr. Welles, that is great, but as you well know in animation, we have to do the narration first, and we've already done the film…” He interrupts me and says, “It's been done the only way it can be done.” I said, “Okay.”
We ran over and picked it up and the editor said, “This is really going to work.” Then, lo and behold we got our second film and I said, “Why not?” One time [Orson Welles] said, “Send us some Cuban cigars,” and I'm here to tell you it was harder to get those Cuban cigars than almost anything else I did in my career, cause they were illegal.
One of the editors was into drugs, which was not a secret, so I went and I said, “Tom, I need to get some Cuban cigars. If you can't get that…” He said, “That’s illegal.” Well, “Marijuana’s illegal too.” He said, “Well let me talk to some of my friends.” Oh God it went on and on, but finally I got ahold of Welles and I said, “We've got the cigars,” and he said, “Okay.” We never did pay him, as far as I know. We never did pay him. He just really, really liked working with this kind of community. And of course, [the films] all had a social message. I think he really liked that. I think it was refreshing. He would wait till all the scripts from commercials and documentaries stacked up (and this is from the sound engineer), and he said it would take maybe four or five hours to make maybe a couple hundred thousand dollars in one night. He did all the scripts at once and then he would go off to Ma Maison and sit at his table and have lunch and carry on. Then the sound engineer would call and say, “Well, there's another fifty scripts from the wine company…,” and [Welles] said, “Wait for two more.” Two more came and he just did it straight. So, I never met him but he sure made a difference in my life.
Caleb: I mean, if anybody has a voice for narration…
Nick: After [Is It Always Right to Be Right?] we entered Freedom River to run for the [Academy] award. It got into the final, it didn’t get nominated, but while we're sitting there seven films were narrated by Orson Welles. Fortunately, ours was the first because by the fifth or sixth they started getting laughs. So, he was really, really hot in the seventies.
Caleb: Well you’d almost be disappointed if he didn't have a certain… if he didn't call you after the fact, when the film was basically done and say, “Here's the only way it can be done.” Seems to fit, doesn't it?
Nick: With Roberta Flack, the guy who did the music was a very famous studio musician, [Tom McIntosh], and he said, “Who are you going to get to sing the song?” And we said, “We haven't decided.” “Well, I work with Roberta Flack. Do you want me to contact her?” I said “Yeah!” She said she would be more than happy to do it cause she was good friends with Tom, but the day she recorded I had a fever of a hundred and something. So, I never got to meet her but the director and some of the staff got to meet her. I think she did [the narration] seven or eight times to get it right, like most pros.
Caleb: Everything about that one, from her song and narration to the visuals, was just phenomenal.
Nick: We did very few films with original graphics cause we did so many children's books and again, because of dad and because of what we were doing, most of the people back in the seventies we're doing Scooby-Doo and GI Joe. They all wanted to work on something other than Scooby-Doo and to design something like John Henry in their own style. That's very rare. With John Henry, the artist was able to use his style, as other artists were able to do when they came to work at our studio. If you go to Disney that's the end of it. You’re never doing an original thing in your life, and these people are all very fine artists. In fact, in the old days they used to have a gallery show and all the artists in the animation industry would put up their art. Nothing [we did] looked like Mickey Mouse, I can tell you that.
Caleb: That’s another great point. When most people think of animation, they're thinking of children and light entertainment and Disney. But your films and the stories you pull from, a lot of them are grappling with really serious political, and social, and emotional feelings.
Nick: Well, I don't know if you have it in your collection but Dad’s film, Brotherhood of Man, from . Here's a story that was done for the AFL-CIO. Hell Bent for Election was done for the AFL-CIO to promote Roosevelt. AFL-CIO had a lot of racial problems and they said, “Could you do a film about everybody getting along?” And so, Brotherhood of Man was done for the AFL-CIO, it was banned from most of the Southern schools because the black man gives blood to the white guy in the movie and that was the end of that.
Caleb: Well, you're definitely pushing up against some social taboos and racism at that point.
Nick: A lot of that came from my dad and my mom's family, they were all very, very involved in politics and so that was sort of his go to place. So that was just natural for him and that was not a challenge. That’s what he wanted to do and what his staff wanted to do, and he surrounded himself with people like that. Well, Gerald McBoing Boing (1951), which was Ted Geisel, Dr. Seuss; they worked together in the early fifties and it's about a boy who cannot speak words, only noises, and there's not a stronger metaphor than that. That was dad’s first Oscar.
Caleb: That one’s phenomenal for so many reasons. I'm thinking about the visual style that was started at UPA and carried on by you. It was so different and exciting and kinetic than what had come before. I wonder how you saw your visual style against the rest of the animation industry at that time.
Nick: Well, this is an interesting conversation because the animation industry I was involved in was an industry that went back into the twenties and all the way up to maybe Pixar. That industry no longer exists. The way we worked, the way we distributed our films, the way we negotiated, the whole ball of wax, that doesn't exist. Animation now is a multi-billion-dollar industry, not exclusively because of Pixar, but they were the ones that were at the leading edge of all the CGI stuff. One of the survival techniques of animation, is that there were some things you could only do in animation; not anymore. There's nothing you can’t do now. People will ask me now about this, that, and the other, and I say, “I know more about brain surgery than what's going on in animation.” I mean, it is just spectacular. So, I'm thrilled, but I personally did not have a style.
So, my dad got a contract from a small, educational film company. My dad and the guy that ran that were also very politically involved, so they knew each other. He asked my dad, “Could you come over and help us make these films entertaining?”, because educational films have this awful, awful reputation, which is justified. My dad said, “I’d be thrilled.” I was sitting at the dinner table at their house and he was talking and I said, “Oh, that'd be terrific” My dad said, “I know, you run the studio. Of course, I was thirty years old and what is there to know. I knew everything there was to know by that time, right. So I said, “Oh sure, I'll run the studio,” and that's how it started.
Then when we did, Is It Always Right to Be Right?, I basically was training as a producer. I didn't know what the hell I was doing. He certainly knew everything there was to know and every step of the way he said, “Let's do this, let’s do that.” By the time we got through John Henry I was doing all the producing, and on the flipside of that my mother was dying of cancer, so he was spending all his time with my mom. So, I was left with the studio and we told the authors we’d use word for word, the book and the graphic style. So, ninety percent of it, you look at the book and it’s the same as the film.
Caleb: Well, that's kind of an amazing fidelity between source material and animation.
Nick: The tragedy was that very rarely were the authors pleased once we were finished because they saw it all moving. It's a different world for them. A handful were thrilled. In fact, I have one gal that keeps writing me, and my God it's been forty years, bless her heart. But a couple wanted to sue – “How dare you?”, and we go, “It’s exactly like your book.” “No, the feathers on the duck are different.” But it was good, it was a good run.
Caleb: Well, I imagine those quibbles are probably unavoidable, that's just going to happen with anybody.
Nick: Absolutely. In fact, it's synonymous with other kinds of teaming up.
Caleb: Well, that leads me to another question about the relationship that you had working alongside your father and your brother. What was that alchemy like?
Nick: Actually, it was really good. It wasn't joyous since I was running the company and had to meet payroll, and my dad was a perfectionist and it drove me crazy. I said this, “We have to finish this film and if we don't finish it we won't meet payroll.” I mean that's sort of the drama that was our back and forth, but he was very supportive when we finished John Henry. That's the first film that he saw. I mean, he was involved in it, but they had a cabin in Northern California so he was always up there. He came down from the cabin for something and I said, “John Henry’s done.” I always get choked up, but he came out of the projection room, and he said, “That’s really a good job.”
Then, it was very rough doing Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree (1973), because then I had two perfectionists. That film was phenomenally successful because it's a phenomenal, phenomenal story and everybody knows his graphic style.
Caleb: I watched that one most recently as I was going through the films and just the visual style and the story of that one has such an emotional impact, but it's the animation that really brings it to life.
Nick: Yeah, yeah. We had some really great, young talent. His name was Charlie Hayward [director and animator]. How I remember his name, I don't know, and he changed to a different person. I mean, to give [the animators] that responsibility and that freedom. He later became an art director of a car magazine. Anyway, working with my brother was tough because I was the youngest and he was a perfectionist.
Caleb: It sounds like a pretty good working relationship with your family which is impossible for a lot of people.
Nick: Well, I guess the bottom line is we got a lot of good results, no matter how testy it got. When it finally got done it was good stuff.
Caleb: Speaking of the success of your films, you have four Oscars, which are maybe the most visible awards, but you have a couple of films on the National Film Registry, which is a phenomenal achievement.
Nick: That I didn't know.
Caleb: Oh yeah, you mean until recently or just…
Nick: …Until you told me.
Caleb: I believe The Tell-Tale Heart (1953) is in the National Film Registry and Gerald McBoing-Boing.
Nick: I'm surprised only because of the Oscar for Is It Always Right to Be Right?, that it wasn’t chosen…
Caleb: I was curious if there was any particular award or moment of recognition that stands out to you, Oscar or otherwise.
Nick: Well, I left the business when I was 59 and went into the Peace Corps. My wife and I were in Guatemala for two and a half years. It changed my life, because as most people know, if you help others it's really a great job. I mean, you get so much out of it and I go, “Holy crap, I had no idea!” I pursued the Peace Corps and I got a staff job in Suriname, and I was the Deputy Country Director for about two years. From there I went to the recruiting office and I got to stand in front of people and blab about the Peace Corps. They were all interested because they wanted to join and when I left the staff gave me a mock award and it was a globe with an inscription. The whole luncheon was a faux Academy Awards. They got red paper to put over the carpet and all the gals came in gowns and whatnot and gave speeches. We had bagels and muffins for the menu and I have that little [award] on my desk. I mean, it was a totally, completely different life, as if I had come off the moon or something.
Caleb: It sounds like the Peace Corps was just a very refreshing change of pace.
Nick: It was a fantastic experience and don't forget to ask me about James Earl Jones.
Caleb: Oh, okay. Well let's do that before we forget.
Nick: He narrated our Beauty and the Beast (1981). The interesting thing about those stars is the bigger they got the easier it was to get them, and I can't count the stars that couldn't do it because of schedules or conflicts. So, James Earl Jones had done something and so I just pick up the phone and call the agent, and they would usually hang up on me. Sometimes they would say, “Well, Julie Andrews can't do it, but she would love to do it. If you still have the project in six months, she’ll do it. However, we also represent…” and then it would be another big star. Sometimes that's how it happened.
So, they said James Earl Jones would love to do it. They said, “The problem is he's in New York doing a play.” In those days all the big studios had their main offices in New York. I said, “Screw it. I'll just put together a business trip and we’ll record him in New York.” We got it all set up and we go to a recording studio and we're waiting and he comes around the corner. We introduced ourselves and I took his hand and I said, “And may the force be with you.” He gave me the most withering look. I mean, here's a Shakespearian trained actor. I go, “You jerk!” He did his take ten times. He said, “Let's do it again. Let's do it again.” So, we finally finish and I thanked him profusely and he walks down the hallway and he turns and I thought, “Oh thank God that's all over.” He comes back and he turns to me and says, “And may the force be with you.” He let me off the hook, which was wonderful.
Caleb: Yeah, you don't want that stuck in the back of your mind playing for the rest of your life. I actually had forgotten that he did the narration for that. Is there a film that you've produced that you are most proud of?
Nick: Well Right to Be Right would be at the top. The thing is, I did it side-by-side with my dad and so a lot that happened was due to his fingertips, but certainly John Henry I'm very proud of because it was my film. There’s a lot of little shorts in the CBS show, which some you have as stand-alones. I don't think you have Old Clothes because it was very short. We did it in collage and we did it to a jazz theme. We actually entered for the Academy because we thought it was just so terrific. This little girl on a skateboard is changing clothes and the clothes are all paper cut outs, so it's a collage animation. I don't know why but I haven’t thought about that film in many years, but certainly John Henry was a classic tale.
We did [The Legend of] Sleepy Hollow (1972) with John Carradine and working with him was just… most people don't know his history and they just know his sons, but his film and acting history is just dripping with integrity. Most of them would not settle for a single take. I would say, without question, the bigger the star the more takes they wanted to do. We did Alan Arkin's, “The Lemming Condition,” an amazing book. It brings tears to your eyes. Working with Alan Arkin was one of my most incredible experiences. He's a Buddhist and what a guy. He's the real deal.
Caleb: What was the most challenging film, for any reason?
Nick: The Giving Tree, hands down. Silverstein required full creative control of the film or wouldn’t sign over the film rights. First of all, he wanted it done exactly like the book, which we would do, and when we showed it to him, he said, “No, you have to redo it.” You don't redo animations. He said, “No, [the background] has to be white.” I think Dad took him to lunch and explained to him, “We’ll do it but after the fourth screening [the background] will all be scratches and they'll be snow because of the projector.” So it's sort of a light blue. That's the best we could do, and he was never available. He would always go to the Hefner mansion, and I guess anybody who goes to the mansion, you don't really make your appointments on time. He was just extremely, extremely difficult, which was not our usual experience. We didn't get those a lot, but it’s a masterpiece. It is Harper and Row’s biggest selling book in the history of the whole publishing company and it's still selling. We were proud to be able to do it.
Caleb: As we have gone through this process together, of finding your films and digitizing them, and now we have this nice exhibit. You have your family's legacy out in front of you and I'm curious what you hope your collection might offer viewers as they come upon it into the future.
Nick: There’s not a day that goes by that I'm not proud of my dad as a dad and what he accomplished, because what he was doing was really going upstream. He was making those films when there was a Mickey Mouse, when there was Hanna-Barbera. When he won the Oscar for Columbia he got all The Fox and the Crow cartoons and they did two, and the staff said, “We're not doing these, they’re racist.” Here’s a multi – I don't know if it was millions in those days – but it was the entire work order for UPA for Columbia Pictures, and my Dad said, “We’re not going to do Fox and the Crow.” And quite frankly, Columbia could care less. [They said,] “Do whatever you goddamn please but make it a single character because the marketing guys won't know how to handle your films,” and that's how [Mr.] Magoo started. I learned from him and I think running the studio the way I did, it wasn't as foreign or as scary as it could have been had I just come in off the street. I had somebody standing there that lived through a couple of battles and came out the other end. So, the battles that I had to go through, I go, “Oh, here come the battles.” I’m in awe of both my brother and my dad's integrity.