Monday, November 19, 2007

Quentin Tarantino on The Golden Girls (November 19, 1988)

Before writing and directing 1992's Reservoir Dogs and 1994's Pulp Fiction, a 25 year old Quentin Tarantino appeared as an Elvis impersonator on a 1988 episode of "The Golden Girls."

The episode in question was "Sophia's Wedding (Part 1)," which originally aired on November 19, 1988. Directed by Terry Hughes, with a script by Barry Fanaro and Mort Nathan, the episode was the sixth of the fourth season. The plot was typical sitcom fare. Aging matriarch Sophia (Estelle Getty) returns to New York for the funeral of a longtime friend. Accompanied by her daughter, Dorothy (Bea Arthur), she meets Max Weinstock (Jack Gilford, known to modern viewers as Bernie from the Cocoon films). Sophia had dreaded seeing him again, for she blamed him for the long-ago demise of her then-husband's eatery. The two reconcile, return to Florida, become lovers, and decide to marry. Meanwhile, Rose (Betty White) and Blanche (Rue McClanahan) have formed a chapter of an unofficial Elvis Presley fan club. The confused Rose accidentally sends the wedding invitations to the Elvis impersonators she had planned to invite to a fan club meeting. Thus, they are the only guests. After the wedding, the assembled Elvii serenade the new bride and groom with "Hawaii Wedding Song," whereupon the episode ends. Tarantino did not appear in the episode's second half one week later.

Tarantino earned the walk-on role due to the efforts of his new manager, Cathryn James. She had taken him as a client after being introduced to him by an existing client, Craig Hamann, a long-time Tarantino friend. Hamann had worked with Tarantino on his first film, the never released My Best Friend's Birthday, in 1987. In the 2005 book Rebels on the Backlot, author Sharon Waxman recounts the tale of how the young actor got the role:

Cathryn Jaymes had taken Hamann on as an actor client after he worked in her office as a secretarial assistant, among his other jobs. One day in the mid-1980s he brought his friend Tarantino around to her office.

At the time, Tarantino didn't have much to recommend him: he was an aspiring actor but not exactly a kid at age twenty-five. He had no credits, no acting reel.

But he he definitely had something. He walked into Jaymes's live-in office in a ripped T-shirt and jeans with his hangdog shuffle, and he did the quintessential Quentin performance, spouting stream-of consciousness movie ideas, holding forth passionately about his favorite movies, about his plans to act and makes movies himself. He was funny, gregarious, charming - and engagingly manic. Jaymes, then thirty-four years old, loved him immediately and at the end of the meeting said simply: "I have no doubt you will become a major force in the industry." She signed him.


Tarantino was determined to act, so at first Jaymes got him jobs doing just that. She called up a friend, a casting agent over at the television show The Golden Girls. They needed an Elvis impersonator for one episode, and Jaymes touted her new client as "Elvis meets Charlie Manson." He got the walk-on, his first real job in show business.1

Above: The scene in question.

Interviewed in 1994 by Margy Rochlin for Playboy, Tarantino recalled the experience:

Well, it was kind of a high point because it was one of the few times that I actually got hired for a job. I was one of 12 Elvis impersonators, really just a glorified extra. For some reason they had us sing Don Ho's Hawaiian Love Chant. All the other Elvis impersonators wore Vegas-style jumpsuits. But I wore my own clothes, because I was, like, the Sun Records Elvis. I was the hillbilly cat Elvis. I was the real Elvis; everyone else was Elvis after he sold out.2

(Rochlin's full 1994 Playboy interview can be found here.). Tarantino would also quip that "Bea Arthur is fine after she's had her morning coffee."3 In 2003, he would tell the tale of his audition during his now infamous drunk appearance on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno."

His compensation for the episode, and ensuing residuals, sustained him as he pursued truer interests. In 1992, David Kronke of the Daily News of Los Angeles broached that subject:

The important lesson he learned from the work was how much money one can make doing one little job. "I made $3,000 over the course of a year for a couple of days' work. Every time I was running out of money, I'd get a check for $100 or $200 or $300. It was so great - now I understand why people do this."4

Actor Harvey J. Goldenberg played the minister officiating the wedding of Sophia and Max. He also agrees that Tarantino looked different than the other Elvii. In a recent email to this site, Goldenberg (whose official site is here) remembers the production of the episode in question:

The show rehearsed Mon-Wed as I recall. We gathered around a large table the first day and read through the script. Bea Arthur's big problem was that the bagels and cream cheese they brought in for her didn't taste like New York bagels. While she was never moody, the staff tiptoed around her. On Thursday with did a dry run through in the morning and then another after lunch. We shot the show twice on Friday. First a dress rehearsal with an audience about 2 p.m. and then the final show in front of another audience at night.


As for the Wedding sequence, the thing I remember is that I screwed up my last line. I had been letter perfect all during rehearsals. Then the last day, Estelle took umbrage at the expression "Man and wife." She felt it should be "Husband and wife." The writers graciously agreed to change the line to that. Of course I got flustered and said the original line which I think they went with.

"The wedding sequence didn't rehearse any longer than any of the others since the Elvises were not there until Thursday," he says. Of the Elvii assembled on the set , he remembers:

The thing I remembered about the singing Elvises is how few really looked like Elvis. Also how many of the Elvises took themselves seriously. Aside from his being the most strange looking Elvis I can recall seeing, I remember nothing about Quentin Tarantino being on that shoot.

Of the principal members of the cast, and its guest star, Gilford, Goldenberg recalls:

Estelle had the most lines this show and she was nervous about forgetting them. I went over them with her.

Jack Gilford and his wife were both very nice, easy people to be around. They had written a book in 1978 called 170 Years of Show Business.


Betty White was very quiet. Sat by herself and knitted.

Rue McClanahan [was] every bit as outgoing and charming in person as her Blanche Devereaux.

(Internal links added). One wonders if Tarantino, the pop culture addict, could resist the temptation to speak with Gilford (of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Save the Tiger, for which he was nominated for an Oscar), Arthur (of TV's "Maude" and "The Sid Caesar Show"), McClanahan, White, and Goldenberg (TV's "That Girl" and "M*A*S*H").

Goldenberg made news earlier this year for witnessing of an airport security incident.

In early days of the Internet, before TV episodes were easily found in DVD box sets and the Youtubes, rumors abounded on the Usenet newsgroups that the famed director had once appeared in an episode of such a tame sitcom. On September 23, 1993, Ola Torstensson, well ahead of the pop culture and Internet curve, noted on rec.arts.movies that he "just felt like pointing out that while Tarantino was writing Reservoir Dogs (and perhaps True Romance) he lived on the money that kept flowing in after he'd once been in a 'Golden Girls' episode playing an . . . . . . Elvis impersonator!"(See also here). There was little way to confirm the truth of the rumor unless one happened upon a cable rerun. On July 13, 1996, one "MondoFaust" posted an inquiry in the Usenet newsgroup, of all places, asking simply: "Does anyone have a tape of the episode of 'The Golden Girls' on which Quentin Tarantino appeared (pre-Reservoir Dogs) as an Elvis impersonator?" The fourth season of "The Golden Girls" would not be released on DVD until February of 2006 (at which time IGN featured some screen captures highlighting Tarantino).

The Elvis impersonator footage would be re-used in a later episode of the series. Two years later, on May 12, 1990, the second part of a two-part Golden Girls clip show, "The President's Coming! (Part 2)," rebroadcast Tarantino's fateful scene. In that two-part episode, the principal cast remembers certain events of the preceding years as they prepare for a visit by President George H.W. Bush to their home. Prompting the memories is a Secret Service Agent investigating them prior to the President's official visit. The agent specifically asks Sophia why she is also known as Sophia Weinstock, leading to a few clips from the original episode in which Tarantino appeared, if ever so briefly. At the end of the episode, the four Golden Girls meet President Bush, played by an actor who is seen offscreen, save for his hands, which shake those of the main cast. (Harry Shearer played the voice of President Bush.). This episode was written by Marc Cherry, fourteen years before he would achieve massive success as the creator of ABC's "Desperate Housewives." On June 2, 1990, Gilford, also featured in the clip show, died of stomach cancer in Manhattan less than a month after it aired.

UPDATE (11/26/07): See here for a review and analysis of Tarantino's February 22, 1995 appearance on "All-American Girl," the sitcom starring Margaret Cho.

1. Sharon Waxman, Rebels on the Backlot: Six Maverick Directors and How They Conquered the Hollywood Studio System, p. 22-23 (HarperCollins, 2005) (ISBN 0060540176).
2. Margy Rochlin, "Quentin Tarantino. (filmmaker) (Interview)," Playboy, (November 1994).
3. Eleanor Ringel, "Quentin Tarantino Nonfiction," Atlanta Journal Constitution, October 9, 1994.
4. David Kronke, "Violent is the word for Tarantino; Director's zeal is his unbridled passion for film," The Daily News (Los Angeles, CA), October 23, 1992.


Anonymous said...

Great article.

T.S.T. said...

As arcane as entertaining, as ever.

Unknown said...

what an epiphany, i would've never known about this!

Anonymous said...

Your use of "Elvii" as a plural of Elvis is patently wrong. It's only correct (and not always so) with a singular ending of -us, such as fungus:fungi, radius:radii, stimulus:stimuli, etc etc. Just a pet peeve of mine :) Great article.

Unknown said...

you should write a book...if you haven't already done so.

Anonymous said...

This was 1 of my favorites of TGGs & I noticed Q.T. long before any1 else did. But the story of how he got the job was inspiring. As a STRUGGLING actress, it gives me hope for myself 1 day-- that a virtual unknown can come out of nowhere w/ nothing more than pluck & a dream to be the international the international sensation he was meant to be. Thank you for such a wonderful article. (& to Anonymous 11/19/07: Don't take things so literally. The writer was trying to be funny. I like the use of "Elvii" & have used it once myself while viewing the episode!) {{{{^_^}}}}

Meredith H. said...

I just finished watching this episode and looked up Quentin Tarantino + Golden Girls. I'm glad I found your informative, well written article. I especially enjoyed the reminisces of Tarantino, Waxman, and Goldenberg. The photos were great, too. Kudos.

Anonymous said...

Just Watched this on Gem (channel) in Sydney Australia ...... spent ten minutes on imdb checking ages on all the golden girls and found this...........

Anonymous said...

Well thank you Buzz Killington!