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Book excerpt: Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

After earning Academy Awards for his screenplays for “Pulp Fiction” and “Django Unchained,” as well as a nomination for writing “Inglourious Basterds,” filmmaker Quentin Tarantino earned another screenplay nomination for his 2019 period film, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” A witty and densely-plotted exploration of the film and television industry in the late 1960s, the story told of a fading TV western star, Rick Dalton (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), whose path will cross with that of his next-door neighbor, rising star Sharon Tate – and a trio of Charles Manson acolytes armed for trouble.

Tarantino’s screenplay was actually born as a novel which he’d spent years writing, before wrangling the story into a two-and-a-half-hour movie, which would be nominated for 10 Oscars and win two (including for Brad Pitt as Best Supporting Actor). 

Now published, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (HarperCollins) is Tarantino’s first book, expanding upon the characters and nostalgic air of the movie, and luxuriating in the freedom from the dictates of running time.

Read an excerpt from Chapter One below, and don’t miss Tracy Smith’s interview with Quentin Tarantino on “CBS Sunday Morning” July 4!


HarperCollins

Excerpt from Chapter One

“Call Me Marvin”
   
The buzzer on Marvin Schwarz’s desk Dictaphone makes a noise. The William Morris agent’s finger holds the lever down on the box. “Is that my ten-thirty you’re buzzing me about, Miss Himmelsteen?”

“Yes it is, Mr. Schwarz,” his secretary’s voice pipes out of the tiny speaker. “Mr. Dalton is waiting outside.”

Marvin pushes down the lever again. “I’m ready when you are, Miss Himmelsteen.”

When the door to Marvin’s office opens, his young secretary, Miss Himmelsteen, steps in first. She’s a twenty-one-year-old woman of the hippie persuasion. She sports a white miniskirt that shows off her long tan legs and wears her long brown hair in Pocahontas-style pigtails that hang down each side of her head. The handsome forty-two-year-old actor Rick Dalton, and his de rigueur glistening wet brown pompadour, follow behind her.

Marvin’s smile grows wide as he stands up from the chair behind his desk. Miss Himmelsteen tries to do the introductions, but Marvin cuts her off. “Miss Himmelsteen, since I just finished watching a Rick Dalton f*****’ film festival, no need to introduce this man to me.” Marvin crosses the distance between them, sticking out his hand for the cowboy actor to shake. “Put ‘er there, Rick.”

Rick smiles and gives the agent’s hand a big pumping shake. “Rick Dalton. Thank you very much, Mr. Schwartz, for taking the time to meet me.”

Marvin corrects him. “It’s Schwarz, not Schwartz.”

Jesus Christ, I’m f*****’ this whole thing up already, Rick thinks.

“Goddammit to hell … I’m sorry about that … Mr. Sch-WARZ.”

As Mr. Schwarz does a final shake of the hand, he says, “Call me Marvin.”

“Marvin, call me Rick.”

“Rick …”

They let go of each other’s hand.

“Can Miss Himmelsteen get you a tasty beverage?”  

Rick waves the offer away. “No, I’m fine.”

Marvin insists. “Are you sure, nothing? Coffee, Coke, Pepsi, Simba?”

“Alright,” Rick says. “Maybe a cup of coffee.”

“Good.” Clapping the actor on his shoulder, Marvin turns to his young girl Friday. “Miss Himmelsteen, would you be so kind as to get my friend Rick here a cup of coffee, and I’ll have one myself.”

The young lady nods her head in the affirmative and crosses the length of the office. As she starts to close the door behind her, Marvin yells after her, “Oh, and none of that Maxwell House rotgut they got in the break room. Go to Rex’s office,” Marvin instructs. “He’s always got the classiest coffee—but none of that Turkish s***,” Marvin warns.

“Yes, sir,” Miss Himmelsteen answers, then turns to Rick. “How do you take your coffee, Mr. Dalton?”

Rick turns to her and says, “Haven’t you heard? Black is beautiful.”

Marvin lets out a Klaxon-like guffaw, while Miss Himmelsteen covers her mouth with her hand as she giggles. Before his secretary can close the door behind her, Marvin yells out, “Oh, and Miss Himmelsteen, short of my wife and kids dead on the highway, hold all my calls. In fact, if my wife and kids are dead, well, they’ll all be just as dead thirty minutes from now, so hold all my calls.”

The agent gestures for the actor to sit on one of two leather sofas that face each other, a glass-top coffee table in between, and Rick makes himself comfortable.

“First things first,” the agent says. “I send you greetings from my wife, Mary Alice Schwarz! We had a Rick Dalton double feature in our screening room last night.”

“Wow. That’s both flattering and embarrassing,” Rick says. “What did ya see?”

“Film prints of Tanner and The Fourteen Fists of McCluskey.”  

“Well, them are two of the good ones,” Rick says. “McCluskey was directed by Paul Wendkos. He’s my favorite of all my directors. He made Gidget. I was supposed to be in  that. Tommy Laughlin got my part.” But then he magnanimously waves it away. “But that’s okay, I like Tommy. He got me in the first big play I ever did.”

“Really?” Marvin asks. “You’ve done a lot of theater?”

“Not much,” he says. “I get bored doing the same s*** again and again.”

“So Paul Wendkos is your favorite director, huh?” Marvin asks.

“Yeah, I started out with him in my early days. I’m in his Cliff Robertson picture, Battle of the Coral Sea. You can see me and Tommy Laughlin hangin’ out in the back of the submarine the whole damn picture.”

Marvin makes one of his declarative industry statements: “Paul-f*****’-Wendkos. Underrated action specialist.”

“Very true,” Rick agrees. “And when I landed Bounty  Law, he came on and directed about seven or eight episodes.”

“So,” Rick asks, fishing for a compliment, “I hope the Rick Dalton double feature wasn’t too painful for you and the Mrs.?”

Marvin laughs. “Painful? Stop. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.” Marvin continues, “So Mary Alice and I watched Tanner. Mary Alice doesn’t like the violence in modern movies these days, so I saved McCluskey to watch by myself after she went to bed.”

Then there’s a small tap on the office door, just before the miniskirt-wearing Miss Himmelsteen enters the office, carrying two cups of steaming coffee for Rick and Marvin. She carefully hands the hot beverages to the two gentlemen.

“This is from Rex’s office, right?”

“Rex said you owe him one of your cigars.”

The agent snorts. “That cheap Jew bastard, the only thing I owe him is a hard time.”

Everybody laughs.

“Thank you, Miss Himmelsteen; that will be all for now.”

She exits, leaving the two men alone to discuss the entertainment business, Rick Dalton’s career, and, more important, his future.

“Where was I?” Marvin asks. “Oh yeah—violence in modern movies. Mary Alice doesn’t like it. But she loves westerns. Always has. We saw westerns all through our courtship. Watching westerns together is one of our favorite things to do, and we thoroughly enjoyed Tanner.”

“Awww, that’s nice,” Rick says.

“Now when we do these double features,” Marvin explains, “by the last three reels of the first film, Mary Alice is asleep in my lap. But for Tanner, she made it to just before the last reel—which was nine-thirty—which is pretty good for Mary Alice.”

As Marvin explains to Rick the movie-viewing habits of the happy couple, Rick takes a sip of the hot coffee.

Hey, that’s good, the actor thinks. This Rex fella does have classy coffee.

Marvin continues, “Movie’s over, she goes to bed. I open up a box of Havana’s, pour myself a cognac, and watch the second movie by myself.”

Rick takes another sip of Rex’s delicious coffee. Marvin points at the coffee cup. “Good stuff, huh?”

“What,” Rick asks, “the coffee?”

“No, the pastrami. Of course the coffee,” Marvin says, with Catskill timing.

“It’s f*****’ sensational,” Rick agrees. “Where does he get it?”

“One of these delicatessens here in Beverly Hills, but he won’t say which one,” Marvin says, then continues with Mary Alice’s viewing habits. “This morning after breakfast and after I leave for the office, the projectionist, Greg, comes back and screens the last reel so she can see how the picture ends. And that’s our movie-watching routine. We’re very happy about it. And she was very much looking forward to seeing how Tanner ends.”

Then Marvin adds, “However, she’s already figured out you’re gonna hafta kill your father, Ralph Meeker, before it’s all over.”

“Well, yeah, that’s the problem with the movie,” Rick says. “It ain’t if I kill the domineering patriarch, it’s when. And it ain’t if Michael Callan, the sensitive brother, kills me—it’s when.”

Marvin agrees. “True. But both of us thought you and Ralph Meeker matched up pretty well together.”

“Yeah, me too,” Rick replies. “We did make a good father-and-son team. That f*****’ Michael Callan looked like he was adopted. But with me, you could believe Ralph was my old man.”

“Well, the reason you matched up so well together was you two shared a similar dialect.”

Rick laughs. “Especially when compared to f*****’ Michael Callan, who sounded like he should be surfing in Malibu.”

Okay, Marvin thinks, that’s the second time Rick has put down his Tanner co-star Michael Callan. That’s not a good sign. It suggests stinginess in spirit. It suggests a blamer. But Marvin keeps these thoughts to himself.

“I thought Ralph Meeker was sensational,” Rick tells the agent. “The best damn actor I ever worked with, and I’ve worked with Edward G. Robinson! He was also in two of the best Bounty Law‘s.”

Marvin continues recounting his Rick Dalton double feature from the night before. “Which brings us to The Fourteen Fists of McCluskey! What a picture! So much fun.” He pantomimes shooting a machine gun. “All the shooting! All the killing!” Marvin asks, “How many Nazi bastards you kill in that picture? A hundred? A hundred and fifty?”

Rick laughs. “I never counted, but a hundred and fifty sounds right.”

Marvin curses them to himself. “F*****’ Nazi bastards … That’s you operating the flamethrower, ain’t it?”

“You bet your sweet ass it is,” Rick says. “And that’s one s***-f*** crazy weapon you do not want to be on the wrong side of, boy oh boy, let me tell you. I practiced with that dragon three hours a day for two weeks. Not just so I’d look good in the picture, but because I was s*** scared of the damn thing, to tell you the truth.”

“Extraordinary,” says the impressed agent.

“You know, it was just sheer luck I got my role,” Rick tells Marvin. “Originally, Fabian had my part. Then eight days before shootin’ he breaks his shoulder doin’ a Virginian. Mr. Wendkos remembered me, talked the brass over at Columbia into getting Universal to loan me out to do McCluskey.” Rick concludes the story the way he always does: “So I do five movies during my contract with Universal. My most successful film? My Columbia loan-out.”

Marvin removes a gold cigarette case from his inside jacket pocket, pops it open with a ping. Offers one to Rick. “Care for a Kent?”

Rick takes one.

“Do you like this cigarette case?”

“It’s very nice.”

“It’s a gift. From Joseph Cotten. One of my most cherished clients.”

Rick gives Marvin the impressed expression the agent is demanding.

“I recently got him both a Sergio Corbucci picture and an Ishirō Honda picture, and this was a token of his gratitude.”

Those names mean nothing to Rick.

As Mr. Schwarz slips the gold cigarette case back in the inside pocket of his jacket, Rick quickly digs his cigarette lighter out of his pants pocket. Snaps open the lid of the silver Zippo and lights both smokes in his cool-guy way. When he’s done lighting both cigarettes, he snaps the lid of the Zippo closed with loud panache. Marvin chuckles at the show of bravado, then inhales the nicotine.

“What do you smoke?” Marvin asks Rick.

“Capitol W Lights,” Rick says. “But also Chesterfields, Red Apples, and, don’t laugh, Virginia Slims.”

Marvin laughs anyway.

“Hey, I like the taste,” is Rick’s defense.

“I’m laughing at you smoking Red Apples,” Marvin explains. “That cigarette is a sin against nicotine.”

“They were the sponsor of Bounty Law, so I got used to them. Also, I thought it was smart to be seen smoking them in public.”

“Very wise,” Marvin says. “Now, Rick, Sid’s your regular agent. And he asked me would I meet you.”

Rick nods his head.

“Do you know why he asked me to get together with you?”

“To see if you wanted to work with me?” Rick answers.

Marvin laughs. “Well, ultimately, yes. But what I’m getting at is, do you know what I do here at William Morris?”

“Yeah,” Rick says. “You’re an agent.”

“Yeah, but you already got Sid as your agent. If I was just an agent, you wouldn’t be here,” Marvin says.

“Yeah, you’re a special agent,” Rick says.

“Indeed I am,” Marvin says. Then, pointing at Rick with his smoking cigarette, “But I want you to tell me what it is you think I do.”

“Well,” Rick says, “the way it was explained to me is you put famous American talent in foreign films.”

“Not bad,” Marvin says.

     
From “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” by Quentin Tarantino. Copyright © 2021 by Quentin Tarantino. Excerpted with permission by HarperCollins.

     
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