Petrakis in Hollywood
by Dan Georgakas
When I was advising Petrakis regarding his memoir Song of My Life (2014), we often chatted of about his years in Hollywood. He was disappointed that he had not written any memorable films, but felt his experiences in Hollywood had had a significant impact on refining his sense of artistic vision and authorship.
After having all his stories go unpublished for ten years, Petrakis felt honored to have his “Pericles on 31st Street” appear in the Atlantic Monthly (1956). When the television rights were sold to the prestigious Dick Powell Theater, he was joyous that his vision of Greek America would reach a general audience.
Petrakis went to California to work on the script with director Sam Peckinpah. He praised Peckinpah for teaching him the differences between writing that was to appear in print and writing for film or television. Some of the issues involved pacing, voice, the use of silence, and the length of dialog. Petrakis also learned about the impact of actors. Theodore Bikel would bring his distinctive style to the lead role and a major secondary role was played by Carroll O’Connor, destined to achieve fame as television’s Archie Bunker.
After the Pericles show was completed, the producers of the Dick Powell Theater offered Petrakis the chance to write four episodes for a new series and to act as story editor on another. He was tempted by the high wages involved, but was determined to write a novel about Greek Americans. That could only happen if he returned to Chicago, the city he called his “home turf.”
Petrakis’s first novel, Lion at My Heart (1959), partly based on his brief experience as a steel worker, was a modest success. In later years, he judged the work to be quite weak, but it was strong enough for Playhouse 90 to buy the television rights and hire Petrakis as scriptwriter. Playhouse 90 was the most prestigious television drama series of its time, winning awards for its production of works such as Requiem for a Heavyweight, Marty, and 12 Angry Men.
Petrakis worked as cordially with director John Frankenheimer as he had earlier with Peckinpah, but before “Lion” could be produced, live tv drama had gone out of fashion and Playhouse 90 went off the air. Impressed by Petrakis’s talents, Peckinpah was instrumental in getting Petrakis a contract to script a film about Nick the Greek, the legendary poker player. Petrakis savored the assignment as he could draw on the gambling addiction that had almost ruined his own life. He also wanted to explore the cultural nature of Nick the Greek’s personality and expose the viciousness of the mobsters who controlled high-stakes gambling.
The producers, however, wanted a simplistic addiction story without any complicating ethnic dimension that might “limit” the audience. Some of the downside of Las Vegas could be exposed, but the city was to be glamorized rather than mocked. A frustrated Petrakis keen on a preserving his vision of Nick the Greek ended the contract. He would eventually write Nick the Greek (1979), an under-rated novel that fully expressed his feelings about gambling, Greek American culture, and ruthless mobsters.1
Petrakis would be brought back to Hollywood a third time following the sensational success of his A Dream of Kings (1966). The novel was a New York Times best seller for months, was nominated for literary prizes, and was eventually translated into 12 languages. The highest bidder for film rights was National General Pictures with Petrakis as script writer.
National General wanted a film in which Leonidas Matsoukas, the hero of A Dream of Kings, was a Greek peasant transplanted to America where the brutal realities of a modern metropolis trampled his rural culture. Irene Papas was hired to play Matsoukas’s wife, but her main function was to give a Greek aura to the film in a few brief scenes. The producer’s prime concern was to find a box office star for the lead role. Eventually Anthony Quinn was tapped to reprise the image he had created in Zorba the Greek (1964).
Petrakis conceived his idiosyncratic Matsoukas as being formed as much by the culture of Chicago’s Greektown as that of his native Greece. Matsoukas’s traditional values often clashed with American culture, but he was not always wrong and was not a fool. Petrakis thought more scenes should feature Papas and Chicago’s Greek community. He quarreled bitterly with Quinn who envisioned Matsoukas as a primitive ruled by his passions and intuitions. Quinn also thought his sense of Hellenism was stronger than that of Petrakis. The tension between Petrakis and the studio became so intense that his contract was terminated. Petrakis was not surprised that the studio-Quinn vision of the film was a box office and critical flop.
Petrakis had befriended some of the executives at Paramount Studios. They thought Petrakis was too close to his novel to transform it into a film, but that he was an excellent script writer. They added Petrakis to their stable of writers. In Song of My Life (2014), Petrakis discusses how comforting it was to have substantial and dependable wages. He also enjoyed mingling at Hollywood events with famed actors such as Jack Lemon, Debbie Reynolds, Kirk Douglas and Paul Newman. Moreover, his household had become a meeting place for well-known Greek character actors. All of them were proud of their heritage but content earning their level by mainly playing Native Americans, Italians, and Arabs. They brought nothing distinctive to their occasional Greek roles and had little interest in confronting ethnic stereotyping. Petrakis became particularly close to Nick Dennis who had worked with Elia Kazan and had the major supporting role as a bombastic Greek in Kiss Me Deadly (1955), a genre-changing film scripted by A. I. Bezzerides.
Despite all these positives of life in Hollywood, Petrakis realized that all Hollywood scripts were drastically reshaped by producers, directors, actors, and press agents. The writer’s intentions were often lost and even reversed. Staying in Hollywood also meant he would gradually lose his intimate connections with Greek America. He and his wife also were not enthusiastic about their teen-age sons being schooled in Hollywood’s frantic culture. To pursue his artistic vision and develop a distinctive authorial voice, he must abandon Hollywood.
In 1968, the Petrakis family took its first trip to Greece. He spoke with wonder of a small museum in Athens dedicated to the warriors in the Greek War of Independence. He’d seen such portraits throughout his life but suddenly he identified with them in a personal way he had never identified with the heroes of the American revolution.
His visits to historical sites through the years and his reading historical accounts of the rebellion, underscored the shallowness of the countless celebration of the revolution by Greek Americans, who idealized Greeks as glorious fighters and Turks as demons. He became determined to address that ignorance and to inform as many Americans as possible about a world-altering revolution they barely knew of. He wanted to stress that the Greeks had not prevailed due to their national army or the belated intervention of self-serving Great Powers but by repeated local rebellions whose number and fierceness taxed the resources of the Ottomans. At the heart of these uprisings was the Greek village, the birthplaces of most of the immigrants who settled in America. The culture of these often-disparaged villages had preserved and advanced the Hellenic passions and identity needed to defeat the Ottoman armies.
A high point in the 1968 trip had been a visit to the graveside of Petrakis’s favorite Greek author, fellow-Cretan Nikos Kazantzakis. Petrakis spoke little of the characters and dynamics of Kazantzakis’s work, but was awed by his discipline. Petrakis noted how Kazantzakis often worked from dawn until dark, possessed by the fury of creating. That commitment to realizing his personal artistic integrity was the antithesis of the writer’s culture Petrakis had been exposed to in Hollywood. Using Kazantzakis as his artistic role model, Petrakis began to write candidly about the Greek War of Independence. Subsequently, his The Hour of the Bell (1976) and The Shepherds of Shadows (2014) would contain some of his finest and most ambitious writing.
Dan Georgakas is Director of the Greek American Studies Project at the Center for Byzantine and Greek Studies (Queens College - CUNY). He is editor of The American Journal of Contemporary Hellenic Issues. He can be reached at his website: dangeorgakas.ag-sites.net.
1. Editor’s Note: Listen to Harry Mark Petrakis’s 1978 interview about “Nick the Greek” here .