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A Very Bad, Bad Guy: An Interview with ’52-Pickup’s’ John Glover

52-Pick-Up (1986) is a vastly underrated classic that deserves far more attention.

Based on the Elmore Leonard novel of the same name, this dark tale of extortion, kidnapping, and murder is without a doubt one of the most bleak seventies films ever made in ultra-bright 1986.  52 Pick-Up follows Harry Mitchell (Roy Scheider), a middle-aged industrialist who seemingly has it all. His beautiful wife Barbara (Ann-Margret) is about to run for office, his patented metal smelting process is under lucrative contract with the US government, and he even has a sexy young mistress (Kelly Preston) that nobody knows about…or do they?

As you can imagine his world is turned upside down when instead of finding his gorgeous girlfriend in their rendezvous motel room, he discovers three men in ski masks. The trio of gun wielding bandits show Mitchell very damning video evidence of his affair. But what begins as the usual “Pay up or your wife gets this tape!” type noir quickly descends into one of the darkest revenge thrillers ever put on film. This movie starts out dark but gets positively pitch black by the end.

Like most films that never got their proper due, 52 Pick-Up has an unusual behind-the-scenes beginning.

The director of the film, John Frankenheimer, discovered the Elmore Leonard book and loved it. He inquired about the rights only to discover they were already owned by Israeli super producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus of The Cannon Group.

Sadly, missing the rights wasn’t the worst part; The Cannon Group had already adapted Leonard’s novel into a film called The Ambassador starring Robert Mitchum, Rock Hudson, and Ellen Burstyn, two years prior in 1984.

For those of you who may not remember, Golan and Globus weren’t exactly known for prestige projects.

With titles such as New Year’s Evil, Ninja III: The Domination, and The Happy Hooker Goes to Hollywood, they routinely cranked out a lot of schlock.

To his credit, Frankenheimer asked them if he could direct his version anyway, and to their credit, they said yes.

In addition to Scheider, Ann-Margret, and Preston in key roles, Frankenheimer secured an amazing cast for the gritty story. Vanity as the sexy Doreen, Clarence Williams III as the ice-cold Bobby, and Robert Trebor as the skittish Leo help round out the rogue’s gallery of characters all in on the deadly blackmail scheme. But for the head of the trio of criminals – Alan Raimy – Frankenheimer needed an actor who could be both utterly charming while being darkly amoral.

For that, he chose John Glover.

Prior to 52 Pick-Up John Glover had appeared in some notable character parts in films like Annie Hall (1977), Melvin and Howard (1980), and White Nights (1985) to name just a few. But it was his performance as Victor DiMato in television’s An Early Frost (1985) that garnered him universal critical acclaim and an Emmy nomination for his work. An Early Frost, the first real movie to deal with the mounting AIDS crisis, showed Glover as both hilarious and heartbreaking.

Soon after came the character of Alan Raimy for Frankenheimer. Alan Raimy’s day job is a pornographer. He’s also an extortionist who graduates to murder. But that’s not the worst part… he not only committed the murder, he filmed it.

Glover’s performance as Raimy is so delightfully devilish you almost don’t want it to end.

Roger Ebert said this at the time, “The villain’s name is Raimy, and he is played by John Glover as a charming blackmailer with the looks of an aging British juvenile and a conscience with parts on order.”

Glover plays Raimy as a smooth-talking sociopath who gets himself masterfully out of even the most harrowing situations. In one of the film’s more intense scenes, Raimy’s ability to wiggle his way out of anything is truly put to the test. When confronted with screwing his partners out of their shares of the promised extortion money, Bobby, the muscle of the trio, decides to “have a talk” with Raimy.

Bobby imparts coldly, “When a man fucks with me, he’s either very brave, or very stoned…which are you?” What starts with Bobby shooting up Alan’s porn studio, shattering ceiling mirrors, exploding television monitors, ends with the gun right against Alan’s crotch. Alan freezes; who wouldn’t? But in that moment of brilliant tension, Glover’s Alan still manages to avoid his much-deserved deadly consequence. He also manages to shift the power dynamic once again back to himself despite being helpless, naked, and at the wrong end of a gun. Clarence Williams III as Bobby is brilliant in this scene, and it’s his scene, but Glover manages to steal it away from him – just like Raimy steals Bobby’s share.

I recently had the chance to speak with John Glover over Zoom about his experiences working on 52 Pick-Up and his enduring legacy from playing the part.

Your performance in this film is amazing and it’s never left me.

John Glover: I had a ball doing it! …I had the best time playing that part, it’s one of the favorite roles I’ve ever had.

How did this part come to you, and what did you do to prepare for such a challenging role?

John Frankenheimer and his wife went to see White Nights and his wife said “That guy… would make a good Alan Raimy.” I called my dad up to tell him I’d been offered a part in the movie 52 Pick-Up and he said, “Oh! Elmore Leonard! Wow, that’s a great one.”

I didn’t know there was a book, so I went out and got it…if it hadn’t been for my dad, I might have started without knowing it was a book… I started reading the book and reading it over and over and over. I really studied it.”’

How did you decide to use the specific accent for Alan Raimy?

I grew up in Salisbury, Maryland and Baltimore. And the Baltimore accent (*John Glover slips into the accent here) the accent sounds like, sort of, everybody’s stupid. So, I thought okay, I should use that accent. It will make him dangerous… and it worked… John Frankenheimer liked what I came up with.

Frankenheimer’s version of 52 Pick-Up, although set in LA and not Detroit, is still far more faithful to the original novel…this is mostly due to the dialogue. Did you utilize this for the film?

Elmore Leonard writes great dialogue, he’s sort of famous for that…The screenplay had left out some of the dialogue, and there was one kind of “repeat thing” (of Raimy’s) that was left out… and I said to John we should put that back in…it was worth saying, it was all part of the game this guy was playing, he played games all the while, he was so cocksure of himself.

*Raimy repeatedly calls Mitchell “sport” throughout the film. It obviously grates on him and brings added tension to the scenes.

Your scenes with Ann-Margret are among the best in the film and are particularly gut wrenching. Although the violence for the most part occurs off screen, …they’re just terrific scenes and you’re giving each other a lot in those scenes…what was it like working with Ann-Margret?

Well, first off, we all got together and read the script, and she came up to me and said, “John, I’m an untrained actress, I don’t feel like I’m really an actor, and you remind me of one of my dancers…” I was so excited about getting to work with Ann-Margret. I thought this was going to be great! We’d get to hang out together and everything. Then she said, “Even when we’re not shooting, could you just stay in character all the time?”

I remember thinking FUCK, I don’t want to stay in character all the time, I want to get to know Ann-Margret! …I just felt like a turd, a steaming turd, …since she wanted me to stay in character… that’s all she knew me as, this asshole, mean guy, who spoke like an imbecile.

Did you ever meet her after, as yourself?

We never really did…I saw her (in Vegas) years later and it was polite and she was glad that I was there…and it was great that we got to go backstage…but we never really got to know each other.

Alan, your character, was a pornographer, and Frankenheimer used real life porn stars as extras for the party scene to help bolster the credibility of the film. As a trained stage actor what was it like working with actors from, shall we say, another medium?

I was very nervous about that day…about what was going to happen. I had no idea what was going to show up. It was a bunch of fun nice people who made sex movies! We had a great time together…They were fascinated, they were interested, they were real regular people,…it was just really a fun day with a new group of people.

What was the response when the film finally came out?

Pauline Kael (later) wrote that I was “the supreme rotter of the 80s.” I got really good reviews…I remember when the movie opened… the paper came, I didn’t want to read it but a friend told me I had to read it. I got a very wonderful review from The New York Times*.

*Janet Maslin of The New York Times described the movie as “fast-paced, lurid, exploitative and loaded with malevolent energy…” but wrote specifically about Glover, “John Glover, who gives a chilling performance here and makes a brilliant villain. Mr. Glover plays a blackmailer, killer and pornographer who also has ambitions as a film maker. In the most evil and frightening sequence here, he sadistically subjects Mitchell to filmed footage of a real murder, pausing to reflect admiringly upon his own directorial methods.”

The film is a dark film especially for the eighties, eighties movies didn’t usually have darker themes like this, they were mostly about Schwarzenegger and Stallone saving the day no matter what…but this film is different. The scene with Kelly Preston, where you videotape her murder as a snuff film is quite dark. What was that like to shoot? 

Elmore Leonard has a lot of humor, dark humor…There was the scene that had a big speech where I show Roy (Scheider as Harry Mitchell) the film of how we shot the girl, and what I was saying was not that good. I went to John (Frankenheimer) the day we were going to shoot that, and told him what I thought. He came back to my trailer and the two of us together re-wrote the speech that’s in the movie, like an hour before we shot it. I had a great relationship with John.

It still holds up, and your performance absolutely holds up.

It’s what got me the part in Scrooged…Bill Murray and the director (Richard Donner) had just watched it, and offered me the part.

What’s coming up next for you?

I have a part in the new film by James DeMonaco of The Purge films …can’t tell you too much about it yet, but it stars Pete Davison, it’s a wonderful script and it’s a great part too!

Can’t wait!

 

It was wonderful to speak with John Glover and to discover he is as enthusiastic about 52 Pick-Up as I am. Glover’s performance in 52 Pick-Up led to many more iconic roles throughout his career in films like The Chocolate War, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, In the Mouth of Madness, Payback, Shazam!, on television as the voice of the Riddler on Batman: The Animated Series, and of course as Lex’s father Lionel Luther on Smallville. Most recently Glover did a several episode stint as Teddy Maddox, the leader of a doomsday cult who wants to remake the world in his own image, on AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead.

The great John Glover, yesterday and today.

If you’re new to John Glover’s brilliant work I highly suggest you start with 52 Pick-Up.  But no matter where you start, there are several decades worth of great stage, film, and TV roles to choose from.

•  •  •  •  •

Fred Shahadi is an award-winning filmmaker, playwright, and television writer living in Los Angeles.
He is the author of the cult sci-fi JFK conspiracy novel
Shoot the Moon.

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