‘I Looked into those violet eyes…’-

remembering Elizabeth Taylor

Producer Paul Maslansky recalls working with the iconic actress on the 1976 film “The Blue Bird.” Barbra Streisand and Martin Landau also remember the legendary star.

By Michael Aushenker / Special to The Malibu Times

Remembrances and accolades poured in last week after the death of Elizabeth Taylor, including from several luminary Malibu residents.

“It’s the end of an era,” Barbra Streisand said. “It wasn’t just her beauty or her stardom. It was her humanitarianism. She put a face on HIV/AIDS. She was funny. She was generous. She made her life count.”

Streisand was a co-activist and close friend of the star.

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Another Malibuite who knew her well was Martin Landau, who costarred with Taylor in the infamous “Cleopatra.”

“It’s a terrible loss,” Landau said. “A unique talent and a singularly spectacular individual.”

When the news hit of Taylor’s death on the morning of March 23, Malibu resident Paul Maslansky immediately went back in time, more than 30 years ago, when he worked with the famously beautiful actress in the Soviet Union.

Maslansky, a movie producer whose credits include the first “Police Academy,” “The Russia House” and the mini-series “King” for NBC, collaborated with Taylor on the 1976 movie “The Blue Bird,” a remake of the Judy Garland vehicle, “The Blue Bird of Happiness.” “Blue Bird” also starred Ava Gardner, James Coco, Jane Fonda and Cicely Tyson.

“The State Department was very anxious to have a rapprochement with the Soviets,” Maslansky told The Malibu Times.

That co-production came about “with great difficulty,” he added, laughing.

Filmed in Leningrad, “The Blue Bird” was produced by 20th Century Fox and Lenfilm, a Soviet government production company.

Two legends worked behind the camera: director George Cukor (“The Philadelphia Story,” “A Star is Born”) and cinematographer Freddie Young, who had lensed the David Lean classics, “Dr. Zhivago” and “Lawrence of Arabia.”

Maslansky was not a part of the production from the get-go.

“For the first few weeks, I was not involved at all,” Maslansky said. “Producer Eddie Lewis put this together. But after five or six weeks, there were significant problems.”

Both Coco and Gardner became ill. Gardner eventually returned to the set to complete the film, one of her last. However, Coco’s part had to be recast, as he was hospitalized in North Carolina.

“The production found itself moribund,” Maslansky said.

There was a good reason why Maslansky had been brought in to reboot the production. It had to do with a 1968 film he took part in.

“I had spent a year in the Soviet Union doing ‘The Red Tent,’ which was the first Italian-Soviet production. Because of that experience, Alan Ladd, Jr. asked me if I would go to the Soviet Union and pick up the reins and begin the film again.”

When Maslansky arrived in Leningrad, “Elizabeth was in the hotel,” he said. “George told me that there were so many problems. I knocked at the door and this exquisitely beautiful woman answered. This superstar of superstars.”

Taylor, he said, “shared a nice drink of Jack Daniels with me and she had some assistants in the room with her.”

Her companion at the time was Henry Weinberg, as she was in-between marriages to Richard Burton.

Morale was low on the production, and Maslansky and Cukor were in deep discussion for two or three hours trying to figure out how to boost it.

“The English crew was quite dissatisfied and I don’t blame them,” Maslansky said. “Before I left George Cukor’s suite, I asked him, ‘What are the major problems?’ He said, ‘People were coming to the set late.’”

That included Taylor. (Cukor and Young were both in their mid-70s at the time of filming, which added to the anxiety.)

“The next Monday, it was time to start again,” remembered Maslansky, who had helped get the crew per diems. “Everybody was quite enthused. We had to start filming again from the beginning, literally, because Jimmy Coco had been in every scene.”

The crew was ready … and Taylor was a no-show.

“George turned to me after about 45 minutes,” Maslansky recalled, “and he said, ‘I’m going back to the hotel again.’”

Maslansky calmed Cukor and took it upon himself to go talk to Taylor.

“She played three roles in the picture: a peasant, a witch and a queen,” Maslansky said, and when he found her in her dressing room, “she was wearing a very complex costume.”

About five people were tending to her: the famous hairdresser Sydney Guilaroff, her makeup person and several other assistants.

“She had her costume on,” he said. “Her hair was already done. It looked to me probably another 15 minutes. There was an atmosphere of real tension [amid her entourage]. She looks into the makeup mirror and she catches my eye.

“‘Let’s give George a break and be on set at the proper call,’” Maslansky recalled telling Taylor. “There was a long pause and she’s looking at me with a very serious expression on her face. She had a wand made out of crystal. She came right up to me, went nose to nose with me, looked right at me … the scent was wonderful, her perfume … I looked into those violet eyes … She came up to me and blew in my ear, ‘Don’t you worry, Paul … I’m a professional.’”

The dynamics changed from that point on.

“Never a problem since then,” Maslansky said. “She was sensational doing her work.”

Maslansky did recall that Taylor had a few eccentric quirks and perks.

“A lot of her food came from Fortnum and Mason’s in London,” he said.

She also wore a duplicate of the diamond that Burton had given her, and she liked to keep people guessing as to whether or not she was wearing the authentic jewel or the imitation.

“She had to sing, she had to do a little bit of dancing,” Maslansky recalled. “It’s quite a remarkable production, actually… Unfortunately, the picture never worked dramatically. I still find it a charming movie…it should be revisited.”

During the 16 weeks of filming in Leningrad, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project launched in July 1975. It was significant on several levels: it was the last Apollo mission, the first joint U.S.-Soviet Union space flight and the last manned U.S. space mission until April 1981, when NASA’s Space Shuttle program began. The cast and crew of “The Blue Bird” had been filming during that historic mission, and Taylor became a part of it.

“They asked Elizabeth to speak to the astronauts and cosmonauts … and she wished them well on their mission,” Maslansky said.

For Maslansky, the takeaway regarding Taylor was that she was an honor to work with.

“It’s a very, very positive feeling I have for Elizabeth Taylor,” Maslansky said. “I never heard a sour word. She was just exemplary.”

Taylor’s service to others, especially with the Elton John AIDS Foundation, perhaps endeared the actress to many more than her beauty and film work throughout the years.

Sir Elton John stated, “We have just lost a Hollywood giant, but more importantly we have lost an incredible human being. Elizabeth Taylor earned her fame with her extraordinary talent as a young actress, making her first movie at the tender age of nine. She earned our adoration for her stunning beauty and for being the very essence of glamorous movie stardom. And she earned our enduring love and respect for her compassion and her courage in standing up and speaking out about AIDS when others preferred to bury their heads in the sand.”

Taylor was buried in a private service at Forest Lawn in Glendale Thursday last week.

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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