'Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round' Producer Carter DeHaven on Casting James Coburn, Harrison Ford

"Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round" screening
Pete Hammond speaks with producer Carter DeHaven about "Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round."

The KCET Cinema Series concluded its summer season on August 2 at the historic Aero Theatre in Santa Monica with a 50th anniversary screening of "Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round." The 1966 heist film stars James Coburn as Eli Kotch, a convict with many identities who romances his way out of prison and into a series of wealthy homes as he steals his way towards a bank robbery for the ages. 

As Pete Hammond, host of the KCET Cinema Series, noted in his introduction, 1966 was the year that Coburn transitioned to a Hollywood leading man with "Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round," as well as "What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?" and "Our Man Flint." The film also features the first on-screen appearance of Harrison Ford. Joining Hammond before the screening was Carter DeHaven, who produced "Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round." This was the first film he produced. Below is an excerpt of their conversation. 

The KCET Cinema Series summer season was generously sponsored by the E. Hofert Dailey Trust and the James and Paula Coburn Foundation. Tickets for the fall season, which begins on August 16 at the Aero Theatre, are now available. The series will continue to screen some of the most anticipated films of the season including must-see, likely Oscar contenders and the best of the top film festivals. Series members will have the chance to preview “Birth of a Nation” the winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and the comedy “The Hollars” directed by award-winning actor John Krasinski, who co-stars in the film with Anna Kendrick and Margo Martindale. The fall series runs through October 10 and is sponsored by the James and Paula Coburn Foundation. To purchase season passes go to KCET.org/cinemaseries.

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On the evolution of "Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round"

It was my first film and it was important, that we do it right... [James Coburn] was my first choice, my only choice and that wasn't necessarily the story of the studio, but we overcame that.

They wanted somebody that you just alluded to, Pete, with more of a name and somebody that might support the movie, perhaps a little better and I disagreed. 

For me, it was kind of a perfect storm. I was working at Universal as an assistant director and production manager, spent five years of my life there and I wanted out. I wanted to produce movies and I went to them and said why don't you let me produce them. They said, 'no, you're too valuable with what you're doing.' I said, 'no,' so I quit. I was married at the time and had one or two children and it was a big risk, but I just thought it was time to do something. 

I worked with a director named Bernard Girard. Barney wrote this script and directed it. I said, 'listen, I just quit yesterday. If you've got anything that might be good, I got to get a job.' So, he said, 'listen, I'm working on something. Give me a week.' Well, he gave me this script and I flipped over it. I said, 'Jesus, I'll make a deal with this.' He said, 'how do you know that?' I said, 'I don't know, but I will,' and got lucky. The first people I sent it to said, 'let's make the movie.' 

On working with James Coburn

I can honestly say -- and I've done a lot of pictures with a lot of stars -- he, and I don't say that because his daughter is here tonight, because I mean it, he was an absolute gem. 

I'll never forget, he had something he didn't want to do on the set and he said, 'can we talk?' He and I and Barney sat down and went to lunch and he was right. His version was right. We changed it and we did it the right way. 

He was a neat guy. He was always on time. That's an important thing. Getting somebody to show up in make-up and wardrobe in the morning is what they're supposed to do, right? Being on time is a good thing. Some of these guys don't understand that. 

I will tell you one story about when I read the script. I said to Barney, 'there's one guy who comes through to me, Jimmy Coburn, I don't know him.' He wasn't familiar with him. I said, 'let's look at him.' He said, 'you're right, let's get him.' I called the agent and set it up. 'Please, would you get him the script?' That's how different things were then. Called him up and said, 'I've got a great script, would you consider him for an offer...' Agent jumped at it. Said 'Jimmy loved the material, he would like to see you.' I said, 'fine, we'll meet at the hotel.' He said, 'no, no no, he wants to meet you up on Tower Road at his house.' I said, 'great.' Barney and I showed up there for what was ostensibly supposed to be a short meeting, but lasted six hours. Never did get any lunch. A lot of talking, but it was a romance. We got along great. When he came down to the living room, there was a very beautiful, dark-haired lady by the name of Beverly and he introduced her as his wife. She stayed every minute of the meeting and she had a lot of comments. They were good comments. I don't know if I'm putting this correctly, but I would consider she was a big help. Whenever there were problems, she would solve them for us. 

Harrison Ford in "Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round."
Harrison Ford in "Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round."

On casting Harrison Ford in a bit part 

I had no idea who he was because it was one line. You'll see it going through the Biltmore Hotel, I think we were, or someplace, calling out for Mr. so-and-so. There was a wonderful casting lady, a legendary one in this business. She said, 'Carter, you've got to see this guy, he's terrific.' I said, 'for one line? That's what you're getting paid for. You don't need me. Hire him.' She said, 'no no no, I think this guy is going to be something and I want you to have credit with hiring him.' I said, 'well, aren't you darling?' I walked down, looked at him and said, 'hire him!' The worst that could have happened is we would dub his lines. As it turned out, she had a great eye and she found him. 

On filming at LAX 

It was the only spot. It was written for that. We talked about changing that to Boston or some other place and it seems that this is a California story, so we got the city and the state, the city endorsed it. 

It was the first time in my knowledge that it had ever been used as the principle location in... a good half of the movie. Played off well. Every time you go out there, you see everything is still there, except the new tower. That was a first for the airport. It was the first that I produced and it was the first picture that I think Jimmy showed a new side for him. 

On casting Camilla Sparv, who plays Coburn's wife in the film 

We decided on her. She was gorgeous. She didn't have to be a wonderful actress. She had to have a look and a freshness about her. We read her and hired her. I had the contract go up and all was set and then I get a call one day and, boy, he said, 'Carter, this is Bobby Evans.' 

At the time, he was the head of Paramount and he married Camilla. This sounds like the Sinatra/Mia story, right? Where he didn't want her to be in "Rosemary's Baby." That was a battle. 

He said, I understand that you made a deal with Camilla. I said, 'as far as I'm concerned, it's done. It's in legal.' He said, 'get her out of it.' I said, 'Bobby, I can't do that. She's right for the part. She wants to do it. She came in here. The agents, everybody, has agreed to do it and this is not even your picture. You're Paramount. This is Columbia. Want to make a trade? You give me one of your good ones.' He didn't like that. 

It was not pleasant. It went on for several days. I called Camilla and said, 'Bobby, your husband' -- or, husband-to-be, I'm not sure, no they were married -- 'he's kind of threatening the studio and me. Do you want out of this movie?' There was a long pause. She said, 'why?' I said, 'because if you want out, I'll let you out. But, if you don't want out, you can tell your husband to go fly a kite.' I got a note from Bobby the next day. He said, 'you're right. I apologize, but is there any chance?' I said, 'there's no chance. She's in the film.' 

Now, this was not very important to the picture. It could have been any other girl. It was the principle of it. I didn't like the strong-arming. We became, we were friends for life, we still are. It comes up occasionally. He was wrong. I think, principally, he was wrong. I still stand by it. And I never did a picture for Paramount. Isn't that strange? Darn, I just figured that out. 

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