This is one of my favorite stories. A short version (not by me) of it was published in Los Angeles magazine many, many years ago. It’s going to interrupt my Conan the Barbarian stories — but that’s OK, as this tale begins during my early months on Conan, so it’s chronologically valid.
Above: Fan commission
FILM #8: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1980)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman
Screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan
John Milius and Steven Spielberg were best buddies. Nevertheless, there was a rivalry between them. I was witness to their frequent habit of trying to gently one-up each other. Typically, what Steven had, John wanted. And what John had, Steven wanted.
John had Ron Cobb and William Stout.
During the day, Ron and I would work on Conan. At 6:00 PM we’d put our pencils down and cross the hall to Steven’s office where we’d kick around ideas for Steven’s next film, Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Eventually, Steven asked us to jump the Conan ship and join him on Raiders. He wanted Ron as production designer and me as the storyboard artist, the same roles we held on Conan.
Although I had stopped contributing to the after-hours discussions of Raiders (there’s no way I could keep up with the brilliance and knowledge of Ron and Steven; as I recall, I think I mostly just sat there, grinning like an idiot), Steven still wanted me on the film. To help Steven out, I drew a few panels from the sequence in which Indiana Jones fights the Nazis on the truck:
Both Ron and I ultimately turned Steven’s offer down. We felt compelled to be loyal to Milius, as John had given the both of us huge breaks in the film business.
I recommended to Steven that my studio mate Dave Stevens take my place as the Raiders storyboard artist. I showed Steven Dave’s work and arranged for Dave to come in and meet Steven. Dave was hired on the spot and he took up where I left off with the Nazi truck fight sequence. Dave, of course, did a fantastic job.
Steven still wanted me, though. I had an open offer to work on Raiders. But he REALLY wanted Cobb more than anyone.
One day I came in to work and saw Cobb at his drawing table.
“Ron, you look kinda shell-shocked. What’s up?”
“It’s Steven,” Ron replied. “He said if I’d jump ship to work on Raiders, he’d let me direct the sequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
“Ohmigod…What did you say?”
“I told him I don’t know how to direct!”
“What did Steven say?”
“I’m directing today. Come by and I’ll show you how.”
Like you can learn how to direct in one day. Well, maybe with Steven as your instructor, maybe you could…
“I passed. I told Steven I felt compelled to stay loyal to John. Steven was not happy and withdrew the offer.”
After we made Conan the Barbarian, Ron returned to Santa Monica. Steven contacted Ron and apologized — adding that, if he wanted, Ron could still direct the sequel to Close Encounters, with Steven producing. Ron began work on the project. He collaborated with the great John Sayles on the script for Night Skies (the project’s new title). This thriller of a story was based upon an allegedly true tale of two different groups of aliens who had a shoot-out over a farm in Nebraska. Rick Baker was hired to construct Ron’s aliens.
About this time I paid a visit to Ron.
“Ron — What’s the matter? You look miserable.”
“It’s Steven. He’s finished Raiders. Now he’s turned his attention to my film. He’s makes changes every single day. He’s made so many changes that it doesn’t feel like my film anymore. I’d give anything to get off this movie.”
A few days later Steven approached Ron with an offer.
“Ron, I don’t know how to tell you this…but I’ve got to direct this film. I’ll give you $10,000 and a point in the film if you’ll walk away.”
Ron accepted Steven’s offer.
About nine months later, Ron and his wife Robin Love were invited to the cast and crew screening of Steven’s movie (Steven gave Ron a bit part in the film as a doctor). I asked Ron how it was.
“I am so glad I didn’t make it. It’s much too maudlin for my tastes.”
Ron and Robin forgot about the movie until several months later when, while reading the movie industry trade papers, they saw that Steven’s film, no longer titled Night Skies — now titled E.T. – The Extraterrestrial, had grossed over $400,000,000.
“Ron,” Robin asked, “don’t we have a point in that film?”
“I think we do!”
Ron dug through his papers and found the agreement he had made with Steven.
Ron called Universal.
“Oh, thank god,” the Universal finance person said. “This is the first verifiable point we can pay off on. I’ll have your first check messengered over to you right away.”
A couple of hours later, Ron received a check for about $800,000 (!).
Ron had one of Steven’s points, so Ron’s point not only included E.T.’s box office royalties, but participation in the video, DVD, Blu-ray, toys, books…well, everything E.T.-associated. To date, Ron has made well over ten million dollars for not directing E.T.
Only in Hollywood…
And, honestly — it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.