Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Uncle Duke: Director-Actor-Composer

Uncle Duke and Sammy could not get work after "Brooklyn Gorilla," mostly because Martin and Lewis were powerful and intimidated club owners. It wasn't wise to book Mitchell and Petrillo. Martin and Lewis broke up, the craze for their kind of comedy was over, and so Uncle Duke became an actor again, uncredited ("Blackboard Jungle") and doing a kind of Marlon Brando-type gangster role ("Crime in the Streets.") He also worked on "The Duke Mitchell Review" which played many gigs, and he tried to start a singing career. He signed with many labels, including Liberty, Dot and Imperial, but the sessions yielded only a few actual singles that got released. It is possible "Duke Mitchell" was a name too similar to "Guy Mitchell," and this caused, as they say, "Heartaches by the Number." The singles he made are collectors items, with eBay bidders snipering each other like rival Sunnis and Muslims.

One of the proudest achievements for Uncle Duke was "The Executioner," made in 1974, and clearly a forerunner to the Scorcese films such as "Goodfellas." For example, in this Mafia movie, there are scenes where happy Italian music plays while people are executed. Obviously Uncle Duke knew the irony of the contrast, and this contrasting irony was later used in "Goodfellas." Another key moment has a man told to go down on his knees and cross himself and beg for mercy, only to be killed. In a poignant way, it speaks volumes of Uncle Duke's frustrations in his film career. Another key scene had a man being served his own pet poodle, but as "The Godfather" had a horse's head scene, the bigger movie prevailed, and "The Executioner" (original title "Murder Mafia Style") was withdrawn, and not shown for several years until all that false "The Godfather" hysteria died down. That's why some sources show the release date as 1978, but that simply isn't so.

He was not only the director of the film, which would be his last, but he co-starred using the familiar last name of Micelli! Yes, mitchell-i. This was of course a tribute to his real name, and an honor for the family. Jimmy Williams was in the film, and he said, "Things were very professional on the set. Your uncle was a great guy and we had fun, but when it was time to film, it was no nonsense. Every frame had to count. He used to say film costs money, and he was right. You can't argue it. There was a key scene, I'll never forget. I watched them film it. Your uncle and his henchman come in, and put tape across the mouth of a man in a wheelchair. I think this was an homage to that Richard Widmark film. Anyway, they had this old gaffer's tape or something, something a key grip handed them. It might have been key grip tape. It was so old it would not stick in place and every time they began, the tape came loose! They must have done it six or seven times. If you look very carefully in the finished film, you'll see they slap the tape on his mouth and roll him in his wheelchair out of camera range very fast, because they were afraid the tape would come loose again."

The film was made for $27,000 and you can see several family members in it. Duke's wife Jo has a brief moment, his daughter is a bride, his son-in-law Ted Schneider is in it, too, and all fans of Uncle Duke will recognize Vic Caesar, who was a drummer for Duke "way back when."

Uncle Duke was a true Chaplin in this case, as he wrote the script (but was modest about taking credit for it), contributed key music, and of course was so very busy acting and directing. Cara Salerno, who you recall played "Liz" in the finished picture, could not be interviewed by me, but Angelo Paone, a friend, told me she said this: "Think about who else acted and directed their own movies around that time. Jerry Lewis." Is that a coincidence or what? I'm not saying my uncle was trying to compete with Lewis, but he no doubt had it in mind, that if he could pull this off, he'd be up there with Orson Welles and Jerry Lewis, as among the very few to dare to act and direct at the same time. Welles never composed a bit of music, so toss him out of the equation.

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