Filmmaker Looks Back on an Incredible Career

With a career spanning five decades, Las Vegas-based film and TV director Gary Nelson shares highlights—from casting a young Jodie Foster to making a sci-fi cult classic

Gary Nelson directs the 1978 made-for-TV movie To Kill a Cop.

Gary Nelson directs the 1978 made-for-TV movie To Kill a Cop.

The first movie I saw in a theater was Star Wars. Darth Vader made me close my 4-year-old eyes, and the epic horror of the Death Star chilled my heart. But two years later, I encountered a to-this-day unappreciated Walt Disney-produced film called The Black Hole that would stagger my imagination to a greater degree. With its insane, megalomaniac spaceship captain and his eviscerating robot bodyguard, the movie was an eye-opening, if very dark, taste of Dante’s Inferno set in outer space.

Indeed, the motley team of men and machines in The Black Hole begin dying even before the psychedelic vortex of dead-star matter drags them to hell with an uncanny storyline that is equal parts Moby Dick and The Haunting of Hill House and 2001: A Space Odyssey. En route back to Earth, a U.S. probe discovers a once-lost vessel mysteriously hovering near a giant rip in the space-time fabric without getting sucked in. The probe’s crew investigates and ends up being held hostage by the ship’s scientist-commander, who’s determined to go through a black hole.

I remember thinking as a child: I’d love to meet the people who made this! I recently got my chance to fulfill a childhood fantasy upon learning that the director of The Black Hole—and 1976’s Freaky Friday (starring Jodie Foster) and Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold (starring Sharon Stone) and numerous TV shows, pilots and movies—will be inducted in March into the Nevada Entertainer/Artist Hall of Fame at UNLV.

“I love The Black Hole!” I tell him on the phone. “You are my hero.”

“There must be something wrong with you,” he teases.

His name is Gary Nelson, Las Vegas resident and journeyman filmmaker. He lives in an unassuming house with a modest swimming pool in a gated Westside enclave with his two sons. Framed posters of his films line the walls.

Before tackling sci-fi for Disney in the late ’70s, he’d already enjoyed a dazzling career. Born in 1934 in Los Angeles, Nelson apprenticed under great American filmmaker John Ford, working as second assistant director on The Searchers. Nelson married gorgeous Hollywood actress Judi Meredith (Jack the Giant Killer, Queen of Blood), who only agreed to star in Western TV series Have Gun-Will Travel if her husband could direct the episodes. The ploy worked, putting Nelson on the fast track. He went on to touch many successful (especially in syndication) small-screen series: The Andy Griffith Show, Gunsmoke, Gilligan’s Island, Get Smart, Gomer Pyle: USMC and even the Happy Days pilot, which appeared on the anthology series Love American Style. But he has especially fond memories of working with star Richard Boone, who played the role of classy hitman Paladin in Have Gun.

“Boone and I taught acting to kids near Santa Monica on Friday nights,” Nelson recalls. “Afterward we’d race to Mandeville Canyon. He drove a $50,000 Aston Martin, a beautiful car. But I’d beat him on all the turns with my $4,000 Porsche because I never backed down. Ever. I’d whup him every time. He hated me for that.”

Nelson particularly loved working with ensemble casts, which made his Gilligan’s Island experience enjoyable and educational. Despite never smoking reefer with Bob Denver, he has funny anecdotes involving the actresses in that show.

“I happened to be on set one day, scouting out things for my own upcoming episode, when the girls asked the director about his hobby during a break in shooting. He talked about flying his own plane or whatever. So then he turned to Tina Louise [Ginger]: ‘Well, what’s your hobby?’ ‘Fucking,’ she said.”

After establishing himself in postwar television narratives and entertaining millions of baby boomers, Nelson earned the attention of Walt Disney Productions. The company hired him to direct episodes of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, which led to bigger projects. Such as the movie Freaky Friday, which had a lot to do with turning Jodie Foster into a star.

“She was a darling teenager who loved coming to work,” says Nelson of Foster. “For a long time, she would purposely omit Freaky Friday from her career. But I can understand wanting to put it behind her and be grown-up and serious.”

Speaking of getting serious …

“OK, Mr. Nelson, let’s get right down to it: The Black Hole.”

“What about it?” he says.

“Tell me about it.”

“I hated the original script. It was at that point called Space Probe-One, and it was so stupid. It was about a colony onboard a spacecraft somewhere near a black hole. Something had gone wrong, and they were being dragged into the thing. But I agreed to do the movie based on the concept renderings, which were magnificent. We started in with a massive rewrite. Writers came in, fell by the wayside, and then more writers came in.”

The final script evolved into a sinister blend of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Star Wars. (Nelson was never really happy with the script, but knew it was a million times better than the initial draft.) Credit for the film’s ominous tone goes to Academy Award-winning actor Maximilian Schell (Judgment at Nuremberg), who plays the deranged, black hole-hungry scientist.

“I had to fly to Austria get Schell to be in my movie. We sent him the script and he liked it but insisted on meeting the director face to face. He was in Vienna, and I was in Burbank. I said, ‘Let’s meet halfway.’ He said, ‘Halfway is the middle of the Atlantic.’ So I got on a plane to Austria.”

Upon meeting Nelson, Schell said, “You should instead use Jason Robards. You need to see him in this amazing TV mini-series called Washington: Behind Closed Doors.”

“I said, ‘Come on, Maximilian, I directed it,” Nelson laughs. “He couldn’t believe it. He gave me a big kiss and signed on.”

Ultimately The Black Hole, which cost $20 million to make, opened to mixed reviews. It earned $36 million and was nominated for two Oscars in cinematography and special effects. Last year astrophysicist and Cosmos host Neil deGrasse Tyson deemed it the most scientifically inaccurate movie of all time. But black holes are now prominent in the popular imagination thanks to Interstellar, and there’s still online chatter about a gritty remake of Nelson’s movie. Translation: The Black Hole was ahead of its time.

“We were looking for a PG rating,” Nelson says. “We deliberately sought an adult audience, in addition to the kids. And we weren’t afraid to address philosophical ideas by splattering a lot of good stuff in the dialogue. We even contacted Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan to help give us a ring of reality.”

In 2002, while driving west, his wife asked him where they should retire. “Wherever the car breaks down,” he replied. California had gotten overcrowded and changed too much since his childhood. Instead, why not live in a city where they could enjoy great meals, go to shows and still be within easy driving distance of their L.A. friends?

“Best decision I ever made,” Nelson says of settling here. “I love Vegas and the people who call this place home.”

He began teaching production classes for the UNLV film department. Nelson’s academic colleagues are uniformly fans of his work, having grown up watching his narratives.

“He moves the camera with deliberation and grace,” says UNLV professor Sean Clark, who wrote several episodes of Early Edition (a quirky fantasy-drama TV series about a Chicago resident who gets the newspaper a day early) that Nelson directed 1997-2000. “He did this out of necessity due to tight television schedules at first. But it became a trademark of how to visually push narrative.”

Nelson’s personal narrative has taken a melancholy turn. With the 2014 deaths of his wife Judi and brother Jim (who produced the first Star Wars and helped form Industrial Light & Magic), he had a brutal year. He’s 80 years old and not in the best physical health, greeting me at the door in a walker because of his multiple sclerosis. But Nelson is excited about his pending Hall of Fame induction, and he’s open to doing a new project.

“You never know when you’ll get a call to do something interesting,” he says.

He doesn’t watch much TV these days, save for Blue Bloods and House of Cards, which are shows that he admires for the great acting. He also doesn’t cop to worrying much about his cinematic legacy.

“Nothing I’ve done ever goes away,” Nelson says. “The good and bad, they’re forever lurking on a screen somewhere. There was a code I lived by, which is that I promised I’d never do something that would one day embarrass my two boys.”

If he gets behind the camera again, it likely won’t be anything in the sci-fi genre.

“I worked two full years on The Black Hole,” Nelson says. “That’s a lot of time to spend on one film.”

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