Robert Polan "Robby" Wald (1942 - 2014)
If you search the Internet, you'll read next-to-nothing about Robert Polan "Robby" Wald, whom I remember as a boisterous, larger than life human being, but who disappeared from Hollywood in the '90s and never returned. Apart from an IMDb page, he is non-existant online, with only a handfull of producer credits. But of the cast and crew on this film, only Samuel Goldwyn Jr. was raised in a family more connected in show business than Robby's, and I owe him my whole career.
Back Row, L-R: Robby Wald, Connie Wald, Andrew Wald; Front: Marguerite Littman.¹
Robby was born on the 26th of September in 1942, to screenwriter/producer Jerome Irving "Jerry" Wald (1911-1962) and Constance Emily Polan Wald (1916-2012), and was raised in a Pennsylvania Dutch-style farmhouse in Beverly Hills that became the venue for many fabled parties.¹
Robby's father was a mythic figure, who was the basis for the character of Sammy Glick in Budd Schulberg's novel, "What Makes Sammy Run?" Jerry Wald wrote and produced over 80 films between the 1930s and 1960s. His IMDb bio reads, "The son of a dry goods salesman, Jerry Wald was the go-getting Hollywood writer-producer of popular imagination: charismatic, ambitious, shrewd, frequently brilliant, and filled with a nervous energy driving him from one project to another." He was famous for saying, "There's no shortage of talent. There's only a shortage of talent that can recognize talent." (In 1948, he tried to talk Jack L. Warner into signing Marlon Brando to a Warner Bros. contract, but the studio chief refused.) After his tenure at Warner Bros., Jerry was lured by Howard Hughes to run RKO with Norman Krasna. Additionally, he produced the Academy Awards ceremonies telecast twice, in 1957 and 1958. He received four Academy Award nominations as producer of "Mildred Pierce," "Johnny Belinda," "Peyton Place," and "Sons and Lovers." While he never won an Academy Award, he did receive the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1949. To sum it up, if you worked in entertainment, it was a good thing to be friends with Jerry Wald.
Constance ("Connie") was of Lithuanian descent, and a model for fashion designer Claire McCardell. After marrying Jerry she became a reknowned socialite and hostess, the best friend of Audrey Hepburn, and the Walds threw legendary parties in Beverly Hills. Guest lists would include people like Clark Gable, Frances and Sam Goldwyn (and son Sam Goldwyn Jr.), Lee and Ira Gershwin, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Fred Astaire, Rocky and Gary Cooper, Gloria and Jimmy Stewart, Audrey and Billy Wilder, June and Oscar Levant, Tally and Willy Wyler, Lenny Gershe, Jean Howard and Charlie Feldman, George Cukor, Mae West, Loretta Young, Bill Frye, Jim Wharton, Gregory Peck, and Maurice Chevalier. Robby told George Christy that arriving home one weekend from Stanford University, he found his parents with, "Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward in the screening room watching dad's movie, 'Let's Make Love,' which starred Marilyn." Then Jerry died from a heart attack at the family home in Beverly Hills, on July 13, 1962 at the age of 50, when Robby was still in college.
Connie was long-lived, throwing parties for another 50 years while Robby and his brother tried to live up to expectations. Despite his dad's passing, Robby had family connections all over Hollywood, including uncle Malvin "Marvin" Wald (1917-2008), an incredibly prolific TV and film writer over a 60-year career, and uncle Barron Polan (1914-1986), who worked as an artists' manager. Robby's younger brother, Andrew, became a producer, as well. It was a lot to live up to.
Robby became a literary agent and negotiated the first million-dollar book deal in Hollywood, selling Erich Segal's novel, "Love Story," for that unheard-of sum. Tiring of the agenting business (and possibly opting for independent contracting after watching his father die young from stress while fighting with moguls like Warner and Hughes every day in the studio system), he then partnered with Ivy League grad and Harvard Lampoon editor Dimitri Villard and began producing movies. Dimitri had an idea for a vampire movie and hired two goobers just out of high school (Dave Hines and me) to write a script called "Nightlife." Dimitri showed it to Robby, who then gave it to his old party friend, Sam Goldwyn Jr.
I remember learning of Goldwyn's interest in our script through Villard, and being summoned to the Goldwyn office, off Club View Drive on Santa Monica Boulevard, where a crazed-looking but affable man I had never met sat next to me in the waiting area. His coat was wrinkled in the back, and it looked like he had slept in it. We nodded politely. Then Dave and I were called into Goldwyn's office, and this man walked in with us. Apparently after observing us in the waiting room, he decided that he was going to have to carry the meeting. He announced himself as Robby Wald, and I got to see his legendary salesmanship in action. It was the most relaxed meeting I've ever been in. After Robbie spoke for two minutes (we said nothing), Goldwyn announced he was buying our script, then told us we needed an agent. Despite his background, Robby did not volunteer his services.
We didn't see him again until we were nearly fired. Dave and I turned in our first rewrite, and everybody hated it. It was going to cost us our careers, and in a moment of sublime comic timing, Dave was on his honeymoon, so I was facing the firing squad alone. We all sat in Dimitri's living room: Russ Thacher from Goldwyn, Dimitri, Robby and me. Dimitri just looked at me incredulously and dropped the script on the floor in disgust. "Page one," Russ intoned as he opened the script, ready to start the onslaught of objections and complaints... then Robby started interjecting... by laughing at everything Russ brought up, like it was the funniest thing he ever heard: The new scene at an amusement park? "Oh my God, that's hysterical!" A chase in a house of mirrors where the vampire can track the hero by his refection in the mirrors, but he can't see the vampire? "Fucking brilliant! We have to keep that!" A perplexed Russ Thacher then excused himself and went to the restroom, while Dimitri turned to Robby and groused, "You haven't read the script, have you?" Robby cackled without looking back at Dimitri, saying, "I love it!" Our jobs were saved.
A month later, we had finished our tentative, insecure rewrite of the first act. I had to drive it up to Goldwyn's office, and I was terrified that this was going to be the end of our careers. The first scene took place in a drive-in theater (later becoming the "lover's lane" of the finished film, because Goldwyn felt drive-in movies were out-dated). Our main characters, "Mark" and "Robin," sit chastely in a station wagon as erotic imagery plays on the screen (an intermission cartoon with weiners jumping into eager hot dog buns, fries jumping through onion rings, etc.) and every car around them bobs up and down from the enegetic sex going on inside. (It should be noted that this idea was from that first rewrite, but Robby laughed so hard that they kept it in.) After the first reaction to the material, I was far from confident. For moral support, I stopped by the college I had just dropped out of in Long Beach, and picked up the real Robin, who I had named the hero's love interest after. Robin was absolutely stunning. How stunning? Special Effects genius Rob Bottin ("The Howling") had proposed to her when she was still in high school; When I met her at Long Beach State, she had moved into the dorms because some stalker in her hometown had attempted to kidnap herthe cops even found plans, weapons and restraints in his van (he was in jail, but her parents were worried that he'd get out, so they moved her to a different county); while at the school, she had to file a complaint with the dean's office because her illustration instructor had licked her face during a meeting after class in his office, and tried to do worse; finally, I was writing a movie with a character named after her, but she still wasn't interested in me romanticallyshe was dating a guy who ended up pitching for the Dodgers. Still, she liked me and agreed to come along to a nice lunch in Beverly Hills. We went up the four floors to the Goldwyn offices where Robby, Dimitri, Russ and Goldwyn waited impatiently and took my script, making copies. They took their pages into various rooms to read while Robin and I waited. I started to hear laughter, and this time it wasn't just Robby. Pretty soon you could hear loud laughter, from all areas of the office building. Relieved, we all met up in Russ Thacher's office, with Robin and I sitting before Russ at his desk, and Dimitri and Robby behind us. Thacher was extremely complimentary, and offered up which jokes and ideas were his favorites. I turned to see Dimitri and Robby behind us, leaning forward excitedly and smiling; I was basking in their approval... Robby was grinning especially wide... and then I realized he wasn't listening. He was looking down Robin's top.
Robby championed our screenplay to the end. He met with the director, Howard Storm, at a restaurant and pushed to have a gag restored in the opening scene, in which the hero observes a pull-chord vibrator in the car next to his at the drive-in. Robby got down on his knees in the restaurant and begged, "Please re-insert the vibrator!" (Which was much funnier than the actual gag; In this case, he was unsuccessful, and was eventually barred from the set.) Robby not only produced "Once Bitten," when he found out afterwards that we were so inept at self-promotion that we couldn't even land an agent after writing a #1 film, he introduced us to our first and only agent, Steve Whitewho Robby had mentoredand who was starting his own boutique agency.
The next time we saw Robby was at Disney, in the offices of their Sunday Movie TV division. They had shown interest in a script we wrote for Robby and Dimitri called "The Devil and Danny Wells," but it was a little too ribald and profane for television audiences at 8pm. They wanted to hear our ideas to make it family-friendly. We had just been psychlogically flayed by "Once Bitten" reviews, and lacked the self-confidence and conviction to make any kind of case for Disney to produce our work. Our agent was there with us, but he knew we were shell-shocked, and made a call for emergency support. Suddenly, his mentor Robby appeared again, his suit more pressed this time. We were summoned into the office, Robby went in with us, and I saw him pitch our screenplay as family entertainment for an hour. The Disney execs listened to each idea, and would turn to us, impressed, as tell us: "Good idea!" "I love that!" We grinned, proudly. In truth, we had never discussed these ideas with Robby. They were, in fact, Robby's ideas, made up on the fly. A deal was struck, Robby and Dimitri would be the producers, and we started writing... but the WGA began a long strike; in the interim, the Disney Sunday Movie show was canceled and the studio changed networks, introducing a new format, so our project was shelved.
After that, Robby disappeared from our lives again. He and Dimitri had a business model of using first-time (cheap) writers, and we were finally making some money with Steve, with projects at Bud Yorkin Productions, Warner Bros., Columbia, and Universal. Then, one day, we got a call that Robby and Dimitri had a project at Disney called "Flight of the Navigator," and they were sending a script over. The screenplay was dropped off and we spent several days planning a rewritecreating jokes and other bits to spruce it up. We finished an outlineonly to find that they hadn't sent it to us for a rewrite, but because they'd named two of the characters after us, and thought we'd enjoy it. Anyway, it was fun to see them again at the screening a few days later. ("Loved the film! Wouldn't change a thing!")
Robby and Dimitri parted ways after that. Dimitri went on to make more movies, but Robby disappeared completely. The last time I saw him was at Steve White's Christmas party, in about 1994. He shook my hand and hugged my date gregariously, calling her "Robin" (she wasn't). He wasn't clear on what he was doing professionally, but he enjoyed hearing how we were doing and I was laughing at his stories the entire night. I realized how far Dave and I had come... and how much I missed Robby (who then made a comment about "Robin" that totally spoiled the momentbut that was just Robby, and the outrageousness was actually part of what I missed).
Connie Wald died in 2012, at the age of 96. Her last wishes to her sons were "No flowers, no servicesand don't cancel Thanksgiving."³ The brothers then held a holiday dinner with family and friends, which they cooked themselves and served in her home. "Always leave a party at the peak" was Connie's frequent exhortation to her sons, and my guess is that Robby usually ignored that advice. But as for the movie business, Robby left that party completely and kept to himself. Around 2000, Steve told me Robby was living in Malibu, and when he visited there was always a steady stream of pizza and starlettes coming in and out of the condo, but Robby himself never went outside, and it was sad. Robby left the world entirely in 2014 at the age of 71 (much younger in age than his mother, but much older than his father). He is buried with the Wald and Polan families in the Columbarium of Honor, Niche 2146, at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, California.⁴ Rest in Peace, buddy. Don't wrinkle that suit.
SOURCES FOR THIS PAGE:
¹George Christy Talks About Connie Wald, Audrey Hepburn, Salvadore Dali And More! Beverly Hills Courier, 2012.
²Connie Wald dies at 96; Hollywood wife known for low-key parties; by Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times, 23 Nov 2012.
³R.I.P. Connie Wald; Deadline Hollywood, November 17, 2012 2:45pm
⁴Robert Polan Wald; findagrave.com.