Tuesday, March 26, 2013

With George Malich at the final cut

George Malich in a scene from Go South for Animal Index

With George Malich at the final cut

By Chris King

A good George Malich story should begin with Ray Brewer doing something goofy. So let me tell you about the time Ray Brewer butt-called me.

When I answered the phone, Ray was talking, but it soon became clear he hadn’t intended to place a call and wasn’t talking to me. However, he did seem to be talking about me. So of course I couldn’t put down the phone.

Ray was pretty much talking trash on me. We were in the middle of shooting a movie I was directing (Go South for Animal Index, a fable of Los Alamos) and as an actor in the movie natually Ray had complaints about the director, me. He was saying I wasn’t respecting his need and desire to shave the moustache he grew for his part, and he had costume complaints.

“When he finally finishes this fucking movie and I go see it, all I am going to see are the wrinkles on the general’s uniform,” Ray said. “I’m the general who runs the secret military base where they are building the bomb that will take out Hitler, and I can’t get anyone to press my shirt?”

I knew about the moustache issue – every actor in our movie was sick and tired of some hair somewhere on their head that I needed for them to keep there – but the wrinkly uniform was a new grievance. Naturally I wished Ray had told me first rather than go complaining about me to one of our friends.

I called Ray later, called him out on talking behind my back, and he apologized; I promised to press his costume for the next shoot, and we vowed to leave it at that.

But now of course it was my turn to vent, so I called George Malich. George was playing the military chaplain assigned to Lost Almost, our fabled version of Los Alamos in the movie. I called George and whined about Ray talking trash on me behind my back rather than addressing his problems to me directly.

“What’s all this stuff about his costume being wrinky?” George asked. “Why is it your fault that the general’s costume is wrinkly?”

Well, I explained, Ray had gotten into the habit of handing me his costume in a wadded up ball at the end of a shoot, which I tended to hand back to him in the same wadded up ball at the beginning of the next shoot.

“See, that’s what I always tell Ray – he has to be disciplined and prepared,” George said. “He can’t just show up with his talent and have someone hand him his costume. That is his costume, and he should be taking proper care of it as part of his preparation for the role.”

I had learned, making a movie with George and Ray for a year and counting, that this was one of George’s pet themes: Ray Brewer as natural talent who was lacking in discipline and focus.

“You noticed, when I agreed to do this part for you, I went and found a priestly collar and all the religious artifacts needed to play the chaplain,” George said. “That was part of my responsibilty to your movie. It’s Ray who is to blame when he sees those wrinkles on the general’s uniform.”

Indeed, George had costumed himself admirably for his chaplain role and outfitted himself with a box of relics that greatly contributed to his character’s culminating scene, when he collapses in a stupor after a wild, drunken prayer. I was directing this movie for the arts organization Poetry Scores, and we make silent movies based on poems we have set to music. So though no one has a speaking role in our movie, to get into character George had prepared monologues and dialogue for his scenes. In his meltdown scene, shot on our first day of filming in the fall of 2010, George prepared an amazing rant at God for creating a world with someone as evil as Hitler who needed something as disastrous as the atomic bomb to be defeated.

“Why?” George’s military chaplain raged at God in a speech no one who watches our movie will ever hear. “Why?”


Not long after I called George to vent about Ray's butt call, George asked me out to lunch. He said he needed to talk to me about something. I was really excited. I figured he wanted to talk about a movie project, and I was loving working with George Malich. I already was starting to consider him to be a major figure in the Poetry Scores movie unit. Whatever George wanted me to do, I wanted to do it.

I waited for George at Atomic Cowboy for half an hour, then ordered lunch and texted him. I actually don't mind being stood up, because it’s good for my karma as a busy person. I feel like it gives me one free pass to accidentally stand up someone else without feeling too bad about it. I texted George this piece of philosophy and suggested we reschedule the lunch.

George called right away. The next few moments sitting at the bar at Atomic Cowboy holding up a cell phone will be among the last things I ever forget.

“Gosh, I’m sorry, Chris, I forgot – I forgot about our meeting,” George said. “That’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about. I’ve been forgetting a lot of things, and having a hard time reading, and when I went to get a check-up they found that I have a brain tumor.” A surgery would be scheduled within weeks, and he had no idea what the recovery would be like.

I was stunned, shocked, speechless, grief-stricken.

George kept talking about the logistics of his condition and the surgery, using something of an apologetic tone. Gradually, it dawned on me what the apologetic tone was all about. George Malich, the most patient and respectful actor on the planet, had been driven by an emergency to tell a director that he needed to shoot all his scenes before we did anything else. Shoot my scenes next, George was being forced to tell a director, shoot my scenes now – or else. It’s the one thing that might have horrified George Malich even more than a deadly tumor growing in his brain.

Unfailingly considerate directors who respect everyone’s limits at all times do not finish movies. As shocked and grief-stricken as I was, we had to finish a movie, so I dived right into scheduling all the scenes we needed to shoot with George. That was most of the scenes we needed to shoot with George, precisely because he was the sort of accomodating actor you know you can always get to work. Also, he was the only actor in the cast who was happy with his hair.

I borrowed a friend’s apartment, taped up some latticework from a bunch of industrial restaurant salvage we had scrounged for bomb parts, and we shot George’s confession scene one evening. Of course, I had the chaplain take the confession of the general. It’s the classic pairing: spirit and body, peace and war. And I very much wanted to shoot an intense two-man scene between these two great friends and acting partners, George Malich and Ray Brewer.

I ironed Ray’s uniform this time. 

We met at my friend’s apartment and did the scene. Tim McAvin suited up to play a soldier. Making a silent movie, you only have visual signs to tell your story, so the best way to suggest military encirclement is to have an armed soldier in every scene. I loved the idea of having a soldier standing at attention with a rifle even in the confessional. Dan Cross shot the scene, expertly but quickly. George Malich, the one actor every director always knew he could overwork, was now the one actor we had to be careful not to work too hard.

I will be honest – though I said all of the properly positive things at the time, I never had a strong belief that George would act again after his surgery. Without admitting it to anyone, every thing we did together after George broke the news, I experienced as if it would be for the last time. Without saying anything to anyone that evening, I had a strong feeling that we were shooting the last duet between George Malich and Ray Brewer. 

It was a beautiful scene. It was funny – the general is always trying to smoke in this movie, and always being made to put out his cigarette; of course, he fires up in the confessional, and the chaplain makes him put it out. It was powerful – when the general refuses to confess the sin of building the atomic bomb, he explains, “I’m trying to win a war. I’m trying to defeat Hitler.” When Ray improvised these lines, his made his eyes open wider so they gleamed through the latticework. He was acting fully using “the palette of his face,” a phrase George used to coach actors for the camera.

George was hard on Ray as an actor. We weren’t recording sound for the silent movie, so the actors could say anything they wanted during a take without hurting the scene, and George would improvise wickedly funny lines just to make Ray break character and laugh. And then George would let Ray have it. Breaking character is the cardinal sin for any actor, but especially the improvising actor who works in comedy, as George and Ray mostly had done – most memorably in Daniel Bowers’ A: Anonymous, the movie that made me (and everyone else) want to work with these guys. If you are improvising comedy, when you are at your most hilarious, that is absolutely the worst time for someone else in the scene to break character and laugh at you. It ruins your best work.

This was one of the ways George tested Ray when they worked together – he made Ray laugh and break character, and then he scorned Ray the natural talent for his failure to discipline himself.

I observed this tough-love routine with a heavy heart while we filmed the confession, deeply feeling that George did not have too many more moments like this left to share with Ray; with us.


As fate would have it, the last scene we needed to shoot with George was a funeral. This required constructing a fake casket and trucking it out to the sand mine in Crystal City that we were using for the zombie uranium mine scene. (We put zombies in our movies.) While I had George for the funeral, I also wanted to shoot the military chaplain at the mouth of the unranium mine, appalled at the destruction being wrought by the people whose souls he was commissioned to save. The general and the chaplain, Ray and George, visited the mouth of the uranium mine together. “That’s disgusting!” George’s chaplain says, at his first sighting of a zombie trundling a wheelbarrow of raw uranium out of the mine. “That’s disgusting!”

Then George’s chaplain presided over the funeral. The dead man was a scientist who had died in the bomb lab, the bomb’s first casualty. Ray’s general tries to smoke during the service, and is made to put out his cigarette. George kept improvising hilarious humor and making Ray break character, then jabbing at Ray to discipline himself, to stay in character. As always, when working with George Malich and Ray Brewer, I got exactly what I wanted, and more, and better. Then I called the final “Cut!” for George, and he was wrapped on our movie.


It’s amazing to remember this now, but George wasn’t in a rush to wrap our movie only because his brain had to go under the knife in a few weeks. He was also putting in motion his own ambitious plans as a director. George hurriedly developed, cast and put together an expert crew to shoot a series of shorts about his illness and impending surgery, Life is Meant for Living. I was a little disappointed that I wasn’t asked to contribute, because I wanted to give something back to George for all of the time he had devoted to my movie. Also, I wanted him to direct me. Oh, well. Sometimes we need people more than they need us.

George was kept awake and talking throughout the brain surgery, so the doctors could see what parts of his brain were active and functioning and avoid damaging healthy tissue while removing the tumor. At one point during brain surgery, George was later told, he went into a prolonged fit of rage – and he was ranting at Bill Streeter and me. Bill Streeter is a talented local director, best known for the documentary Brick by Chance and Fortune and his Low-Fi St. Louis series. Apparently, the surgeons had hit upon the center of George’s brain reserved for movie directors, and as with the brains of all actors, there was a lot of frustration and rage stored up in there. George even went so far as to howl out during brain surgery that Bill Streeter and Chris King were somehow responsible for what he was going through.

When George began to recover, this story was told to him – he had no memory of it – and it inspired two more episodes in his series of shorts, one about the surgery itself and the other about Streeter and me cooking up the idea of putting George through brain surgery. I hadn’t acted since my senior year in high school, back when Ronald Reagan was president, but I was deeply honored to be asked and eager to help George as he had helped me.

When I showed up at the shoot, I was even more pleased to find Bradley Bowers working the sound. Bradley directed George in his first feature, The Bunglers, and George’s crowning achievement as an actor, A: Anonymous, ends by breaking the frame of the shot to reveal Bradley holding up a mic boom – for all I knew, the same one he was holding up in George’s living room now.

Since Bill Streeter is a much more accomplished director than I am, I suggested I approach him like a fanboy and try to interest him in working with me on “a George Malich vehicle.” Streeter says the problem is George does comedy, and he wants to shoot drama. I insist that’s what I want to do, too – I want to evoke “the mad George.” “Crazy George?” Streeter asks. “No,” I say. “Angry George. Raging George.” When Streeter responds with skepticism, I say, “We just need a motivation. We’ve got to get him angry.” Then George directed us to have the same motivation gradually but simultaneously dawn on both of us: “I know – brain surgery!”

This was the ninth episode in his series of shorts. I wondered what would be next. I knew George’s prognosis was poor – the doctors had said his condition was “treatable, but not curable,” and there had been talk of his having about a year to live – but George seemed up and at it. George was on the go. He was a powerfully strong, superhumanly positive human being. If anybody could make it through this, it would be George Malich.


There was a lot of movie left to shoot after we wrapped with George, and he had a lot of healing to do. Ours had always been a friendship based around projects; I loved the man, as so many did, but we were not in a core circle of intimates who saw each other all of the time. I went to see him and his amazingly sweet fiancee Jennifer Salci once, and called George from time to time, but I did not establish a rhythm of visiting him. I put together a public screening of his Life is Meant for Living series at our friend Julie Malone’s art gallery SOHA, but at the last minute was not able to attend because I was needed at home. I suppose that is my biggest regret today, in terms of things I could have done differently: I wish I had decided to disappoint my family that one time just to please George Malich and to experience his work as a director in his physical presence among our friends.

The last few times we spoke on the phone this spring, it was playing phone tag. George’s return messages were funny, as usual, until suddenly they were not. The last time George called me, he said now was not a good time for him to talk because he was having a hard time remembering anything. Not long after that, our friend John Eiler told me that George had undergone a serious stroke and I should go see him in the hospital as soon as I could. Things didn’t look good for George at all.


I went to see him the next day. George was alone on his half of the hospital room, sleeping, when I arrived. I took a seat and watched him. John had warned me that George’s face was really bloated and he didn’t look like himself. As himself, George looked like Superman, a tall, broad man with good looks, sharp features, dark hair and a chiselled jaw. That face, that man, was gone.

There was a notepad on his table, so I picked it up and sketched George lying back in the hospital bed amid a tangle of cords and machines. When I was finished with my sketch, Ray showed up, and then George’s fiancee Jennifer. Jennifer is a beautiful woman, but she looked unusually gorgeous that day, down to the pedicured and painted toes. I complimented her on this, and she said, “I have to look good for George.”

When George woke up, he was smiling and positive, but he really struggled with language. For the rest of my visit, he said a version of the same statement, over and over – some complaint that “they said there would be eight,” but there were not as many as that. George knew he wasn’t saying it right, and kept asking Jennifer for help. She wasn’t sure either. I was pretty sure he was trying to say that the doctors told him he would have more of his mind and memory for longer than it was turning out to be.

Unlike the priest George played for me who raged at God and demanded, “Why? Why?” George was not angry now. He was sad, puzzled, disappointed. They said there would be eight, but there weren’t going to be as many as that. He was running out of memory, running out of time, much sooner than he had expected.

At the same time, he was happy, even radiant, with a gorgeous smile, especially for Jennifer. He was so full of love for her, and for the rest of life. The goodness and love that always shot forth from this man were still streaming out of him, almost visibly as light.

John Eiler had suggested I bring George some footage from our movie to watch; he was sure George would enjoy it. Our footage was all in the hands of our editor, but I did find a portable drive I had used to sort footage into files for editing, and that drive had some scenes with George on it. Morbid as it might be, the only George scenes I could find to bring him were of the funeral his chaplain conducted, so I brought them and played them for George.

I could tell George didn’t know what or who he was watching in this scene. I wasn’t even certain he recognized himself. But I kept talking and trying to be positive and maybe jar a memory, bringing up other scenes and people from the movie shoot, when finally George said, “Yeah, and then I said, ‘That’s disgusting!’”

“That’s disgusting!” – George improvised that line for the chaplain to say when he first sees zombies coming up from the uranium mine. I was overjoyed – George Malich had remembered a line from our movie; George Malich had remembered a line he had improvised for my movie. It was a tremendous gift for me.

I was on deadline at the newspaper I edit and needed to return to the paper. First, I wanted George to sign my sketch of him. It’s a thing I do, sketch people and then ask them to sign it. I doubted George would be able to sign his name, but who knew what he would come up with.

He studied the drawing for a long time, and held the pencil in his hand. By now we were eating a cake Ray had brought in, something called a pudding cake, and George was having some fun with it. He was saying, “I’ll quit licking pie when I tell you I’m done licking pie,” which was hilarious, coming out of big puffy George Malich propped up in that hospital bed. What he had written out was only his practice take, on a separate piece of paper – you know George, always preparing for the final take – but when he went to copy what he had written out onto the drawing itself, words failed him and he was not able to make sense.

I did something I needed to do, before I left. I told George I loved him. I’m not sure he knew who I was at that moment, but something deep inside his proper upbringing was triggered, and he said, “I love you, too.”


I went home that night and grieved, hard. That was really the night I grieved for George Malich. I was sure the man, the spirit we knew and loved, was not coming back. I wanted to watch some episodes from his Life is Meant for Living series, so I found George’s YouTube channel, and that is when I really lost it. I could not imagine the person I had just seen in the hospital bed ever uploading a new clip onto this site, let alone producing new work for it. I stared with amazement and disbelief, grief and anger, that this was it. This was where George Malich’s work was left when God called, “Cut!” They said there would be eight, and there were not going to be so many ...

The last piece he had completed for Life is Meant for Living and uploaded was episode nine, the one featuring Bill Streeter and me. I couldn’t believe it. I would be George’s last director, and I would be a lead actor in the last thing he directed. I consider George the greatest screen actor of our generation in St. Louis, and I told him I thought that when we were working together, and I knew he appreciated that I thought so and told him. So I was humbled to be there with George Malich at the end of his shoot, at the wrap of his work, at the final cut, and I felt a responsibility to share George’s work and his spirit with other people after he is gone.


The next morning, George underwent his final brain surgery, and I acted in a scene for Thomas Crone. Thomas Crone acted in George’s first feature film as an actor, Bradley Bowers’ The Bunglers; Crone has two brief scenes (with Ray, but not George) in A: Anonymous; and he acts in what was looking like would be George’s last movie, our movie, Go South for Animal Index. George and Crone even do a scene together in our movie, when Crone’s soldier runs George’s chaplain away from the physicists’ workspace where the chaplain has discovered some disturbing papers that suggest what they are really working on down in those secret laboratories. Crone rousts George from the worktable at gunpoint, and then Crone runs off with the watermelon that the chaplain had brought to surprise the scientists.

It was good to be with Crone, to act for Crone, to act, to do improv in St. Louis on a day George Malich underwent brain surgery. I had expected George would make movies with us from now on, for many years, and I thought I would get to continue to learn from him for many years to come. They said there would be eight, but there weren’t going to be as many as that. I was going to have to make due with what I had now, with what I had learned from him up until now, with what George had been able to give me so far. And I had to remember and believe: as long as someone is making movies or doing improv in St. Louis, George Malich is alive and working.


I went to see George in the rehab facility after the surgery. He was alone again, but awake. He was sitting up and eating. I could tell he didn’t know who I was, but seeing a book under my arm, he asked, “What are you reading – today?”

He was much more interested in his lunch. This was a seriously delicious lunch they had served him. It was beans and a frank, with apple pie for dessert. George took his time with his lunch, smacking his lips and savoring the tastes and praising the cooking. There wasn’t that much of him left alive in his beautiful mind, but he was so happy to be alive.

He was sorry, again, that he could not remember things or speak the way he wished. He was “busy.” That was almost the only adjetive he had that day. I was “busy,” he was “busy.” Everyone, everything, was “busy.”

A team of doctors came and asked him questions. He didn’t have many answers for them. He couldn’t name the year or the month. They asked him who I was. After an effort, George said I was “January.” I walked out of his room and down the hall and tried not to weep. When I came back into the room, the doctors were gone and George looked wiped out by all of their questions, the struggle to answer them, and the disappointment at failing them. He said he was “busy” and needed to sleep. He was sorry. But he needed to sleep.

The next thing that happened is worth more to me than anything I possess. It was my privilege to move the table away from George’s hospital bed and to lower the front of his bed until it was flat enough for him to sleep. The lower it got, the more level the bed, the more comfortable he became, and he smiled wider and wider at me, more and more pleased. I was making George feel better, and he was so appreciative for that. It was my greatest privilege to tuck him in, like a baby I dearly loved, like my own baby child. “I’m sorry,” George said. “I have to sleep.” And he fell gently asleep with a peaceful smile on his face.


His fiancee Jennifer was the one who saw George Malich through to the very end of his life, at 1:40 a.m. on Thursday, July 26, 2012, but Ray Brewer was with him earlier that night, his last night with us. Ray talked to me about it in the morning, our first morning without George Malich. 

I called Ray to tell him how sorry I was for his loss. Ray was deeply saddened and depressed, but also pretty numb. We both wept a little, then held it in. Then we wept a little more. We said the things one says at such times. We each described our last moments with George.

Ray said, “I winked at him – and he winked back! He winked at me! There was some part of him still alive down in there. He winked at me!”

“Acting with the palette of the face,” I said, “until the end.”


That was not the time to say it, or even to think it, the grief was too raw, but I can’t help but wonder something now. That wink back to Ray Brewer from a dying man – was that George’s final attempt to make Ray break character? To make him laugh when he isn’t supposed to laugh? To remind him how he was supposed to act?

I’ll choose to believe that George Malich left Ray Brewer, and the rest of us, with this one last important reminder, delivered in a wink with the palette of his face: George was reminding all of us struggling, improvising actors left here on Earth with work to do that we must be prepared, we must be disciplined, we must stay in character. We must not break character, we must not let ourselves ever be awakened from this dream we are inventing together.


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