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Untold Tales of Hollywood #15

I felt that Richard Corben’s boards were damn near perfect (I’ve always admired Richard as a great graphic storyteller), so I didn’t vary much from his opening page of storyboard panels. After that, I was on my own.

Here are the first boards I did; they’re in a more traditional storyboard format. They were drawn on vellum, hence the wrinkling.

After John Milius told me he wanted comic book-style boards I began telling John’s tales of Conan as if it were a comic book.

On the very first day working on the film, I tacked this picture near the top of my drawing table:

Next to this photo I had written in bold hand lettering: “This actor has to be in our movie.”

The two actors being considered for the role of Conan’s father were Jack Palance and William Smith. Had either of these fine actors been younger, I think they would have been perfect for playing Conan. I was there when both actors came in to meet John on separate occasions.

Jack Palance was the first to be seen. He was enthusiastic and in great shape. So much so, that he insisted on being cast as Conan — not Conan’s father. We couldn’t do that; Arnold Schwarzenegger had already been cast as Conan. In my boards, though, I drew Jack as Conan’s dad.

I had loved William Smith as an actor ever since I saw him in Grave of the Vampire, a great little cult horror film with an amazing opening written by David Chase (creator of The Sopranos).

We knew we were going to shoot Conan the Barbarian in and around Zagreb, Yugoslavia. It turned out that William Smith was not only in great shape and up for the role, he was also fluent in Serbo-Croatian, the language spoken in that part of Yugoslavia. Bill got cast.

Each page of the Conan storyboards was taking me forever because as I was telling the tale of Conan, I was simultaneously designing all of the armor, the Cimmerian village, the horses’ armor and the costumes. Plus, I was taking the time to do very finished art — a true rarity when it comes to storyboards, which typically are very quick and loose, just tight enough to convey the composition of the frame and a sense of what’s going on in the frame (I’ve seen “finished” storyboards that were no more refined than the Richard Corben roughs I just posted). I’m known to be very fast as an artist but my speed wasn’t exhibiting itself on these pages.

Within the script, a scene describing Thulsa Doom’s assault on the young Conan’s Cimmerian village surprised me. After the impalement of a Cimmerian mother, one of Thulsa Doom’s troops, while riding through the village, grabs her Cimmerian baby by the arm and dashes its brains out on a post(!).

Robert E. Howard‘s Conan stories have been described as “a pornography of violence” but I felt that this particular bit was way over the top.

John! You’re not going to really shoot that are you?”

“Of course not,” Milius replied. “But if I include it in the script, Dino (DeLaurentiis) will be horrified. He’ll demand that it be taken out.

John imitated Dino’s Italian accent: “Don’t keel the baby!”

I’ll reluctantly remove it from the script. Dino will be happy and he’ll feel like he’s made a real contribution to the film. Having gained that satisfaction, he’ll leave me alone on the stuff that I truly want to include.”

I also took the time to include a joke panel to surprise John. He was delighted.

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #14

A couple of days ago I dug up the first Richard Corben storyboard page plus his roughs for his other storyboard pages for Conan the Barbarian. I thought you might like to see them, as they’ve never been published.

Each of the following images are two pages, side-by-side, except for page 13.

From what I can gather, Richard drew all of this in one or at the most two days. His graphic storytelling is so beautifully simple, clear and cinematic.

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #13

Body builder Arnold Schwarzenegger was cast in the film before I was hired on Conan the Barbarian. We had a poster featuring Arnold — and his stats — on our wall. The poster proclaimed Arnold to be 6’ 3” (my height).

One day it was announced that Arnold was going to pay us a visit so that he could show director John Milius Arnold’s progress on learning his sword fighting moves.

Arnold walked into the art department, clad only in a pair of red trunks. My first thought was, “My god — this is the most beautiful human being I have ever seen — a true Adonis…”

My second thought was, “…and he lies about his height. I’m 6’3” and I’m looking down at him.”

Milius came into the room.

“Okay, everybody. Let’s all go over to the park where we can watch Arnold go through his sword moves.”

We followed Arnold to a little pocket park just outside of our A-Team offices. He went through the sword routines he had been practicing. When he finished, Arnold turned to Milius.

Arnold is gifted when it comes to reading people.

“John,” he said, “something is wrong.”

“No — I’m fine. It’s all fine.”

“No — I can tell. You don’t like something.”

“Don’t worry about it. There’s nothing you can do about it.”

“It’s my body —right?”


“Yes, it’s my body.” Arnold continued. “You don’t want a body builder’s body for Conan — you want more of an athlete’s body.”

“That’d be great, but…”

Arnold made carving motions down the length of his arms and legs.

“So, if I trimmed here and here, and here…”

“You can DO that?!”

Two weeks later, Arnold returned to the A-Team offices. I had never seen anything like it. Through diet and exercise, he had completely re-sculpted his entire body. I knew right then that if Arnold Schwarzenegger set his mind to a goal, nothing could keep him from accomplishing it. Years later, as soon as he announced he was running for governor of California, I knew he was going to win.

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #12

Ron Cobb did a beautiful job designing the swords for Conan the Barbarian.

Cobb’s design for Conan’s father’s sword (

Close-up of Ron Cobb’s Atlantian sword handle and hilt design (

John Milius found Jody Sampson, a man John declared to be “the finest sword maker in the world” and commissioned Jody to make the hero version (the sword used for close-ups) of Conan’s sword. When it was delivered, Milius was beside himself with glee. He proudly invited Steven Spielberg over to gaze upon this incredible sword.

“Watch this!” John instructed.

Milius took the sword and threw it at a wall. The sword did not stick in the wall — it zoomed right through it, arriving at a stop just inches away from the head of a film editor working in the next room.

John retrieved the sword and offered it to Steven.

“Test it out,” Milius offered. “This sword can cut through an engine block!”

Steven took the sword and swung it toward the floor. Upon hitting the floor, this very expensive sword broke in two.

Steven sheepishly handed John back his sword pieces and left the room. Milius had the most shocked and forlorn expression on his face that I had ever seen.

PS: I just dug up and added new images to post #10.

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #11

John Milius saw an advance screening of 1941. He declared it the greatest comedy in the history of film.

Steven put Kathleen Kennedy in charge of 1941’s premiere. Kathy outdid herself. This premiere became the last great over-the-top Hollywood premiere ever produced. Kathy gave me and my girlfriend Alison Buckles tickets to the premiere. I dressed up as a WWII fighter pilot with flared at the thigh breeches, long boots and a vintage WWII leather flight jacket. The premiere was held at Hollywood’s Cinerama Dome with klieg lights scanning the skies. The Dome appeared to be packed with Old Hollywood’s elite.

I really enjoyed 1941 — but it felt like I was the only audience member who did. I found Eddie Deezen hilarious (Kathy told me that in person, he was exactly like the character he was playing). But when I laughed at anything in the movie, the people around me turned and glared. They were not having a good time and seemed to resent that I was.

When the picture finished, Alison and I left the theater to discover that Kathy had Sunset Boulevard closed from the Cinerama Dome to the Hollywood Palladium.

Vintage WWII ambulances manned by period costumed drivers shuffled audience members down the street to the Palladium. WWII soldiers and nurses were everywhere. Air raid sirens blared. On a billboard overlooking Sunset Boulevard, the propellers of a P-40 being flown by John Belushi suddenly started spinning, and then both the propellers and plane lit up with fireworks.

We walked to the Palladium. It was a re-creation of World War II era Hollywood all the way. As soon as we arrived, we were escorted inside. The interior of the Palladium was decked out to look like a 1940s USO club. An Andrews Sisters look-alike trio were singing on stage. After the Andrews Sisters, a 1940s-style crooner took the stage. All kinds of take-home swag was waiting for us at our dinner table, including a model kit of Belushi’s P-40. The waitresses and busboys were all dressed according to the vintage roles they were playing. Alison and I had a blast.

The reviews for 1941 that came out the next day were devastating. The critics had been waiting for Hollywood’s Golden Boy to fall — and their knives were sharpened and ready.

“My god,” Milius said. “From the reviews you’d have thought that Steven had slaughtered innocent women and children. He just made a bad movie.”

Later, though, Milius decided that “The only honorable thing for Steven to do is to commit Seppuku.”

After 1941’s premiere, we at A-Team were instructed to never mention 1941 in Steven’s presence ever again.

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New John Carter Piece

I just completed this John Carter of Mars piece. Unframed, it’s $2750 with free domestic shipping. The image size is about 13″ x 9″, inks and watercolor on board.

If I don’t sell it this week, it’ll be framed for Comic Con with a price bump.

Thought you might like to see it, whether or not you’re interested in purchasing it.

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #10

Kathleen Kennedy needed a favor. She asked if I would design two 1941 T-shirts — one featuring John Belushi, the other sporting the image of Dan Aykroyd. They should look like 1941-style cartoonish bomber nose art. She needed them pretty quickly to both promote the film and to make some ancillary money. I had actually been working on a 1941 movie poster on the side for my best and most often movie poster employer, art director Tony Seiniger (it never got past the pencil stage), so I had plenty of Aykroyd and Belushi photo reference.

I dropped everything I was doing after-Conan-hours and came up with two designs.

They were sent over to Aykroyd and Belushi for their approval.

The designs came back with loads of notes. From the nature of the notes, it looked like they had been written by Aykroyd.

I fulfilled all of the requested changes. What began as a quick favor, though, was suddenly turning into a real pain-in-the-ass tar baby job. My shirt subjects (or at least one of them) were acting like real dicks.

We went back and forth a few times, each pass resulting in more changes — even though I had fulfilled the requested changes, each time doing exactly what had been requested.

(Picture this with the lettering from the first Belushi design added)

Under Aykroyd’s instructions, the caricatures got more and more realistic. I guess he didn’t get the WWII cartoon nose art part of the concept.

I finally decided to cut to the chase — I wrote to Aykroyd directly.

You’d have thought I’d shot the Pope. The shit storm caused by my directly contacting Dan was unbelievable. I had broken one of the Unwritten Rules of Hollywood: violating the Chain of Command. Hollywood can be so full of itself at times. One of the honest questions I had asked Dan was, “Do you even want a 1941 T-shirt with your image? If not, please — just tell me and I’ll happily drop this whole thing.”

It turned out, of course, that the two Saturday Night Live comics indeed never wanted themselves on 1941 T-shirts. All that work on my part was for nothing; another job chalked up to the adage “No good deed goes unpunished”.

This (and a few other things, like the nasty way he treated Robin Williams in front of me) so soured me on Aykroyd that I have turned down all offers since then to work with him. I realize that Dan didn’t actually have it in for me — he wanted to stick it to Spielberg and Steven’s close 1941 circle. I was just the Spielberg representative. But still…

For my efforts on her behalf, Kathy presented me with a big bottle of Dom Perignon champagne. My new wife, family, minister and I consumed it following my wedding in Maui in 1982.

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #9

Our A-Team receptionist, Kathleen Kennedy, was incredibly bright and ambitious. Within a couple of weeks of my working on Conan the Barbarian, she became John Milius’ personal assistant. Within about two months after that jump, she became Steven Spielberg’s personal assistant. Two years later she produced E.T. – The Extraterrestrial. That’s one of the fastest rises I have ever personally witnessed in the Movie Biz.

Did she deserve it? Hell, yeah. Kathy worked her ass off.

Allow me to present an example of Kathy’s character and work ethic.

If Steven called her up at 4:00 AM and told her, “You know…I think elephants would be great for tomorrow’s shoot”, her response wouldn’t be “What in the hell are you doing, waking me up at four in the morning!” Nope. Instead, it would be two questions: ”African or Indian? And what color would you like those elephants, Steven?”

And those elephants would be on the set, painted and ready at 7:00 AM.

On the Monday following my meeting with John Milius and Buzz Feitshans I began drawing the Conan the Barbarian storyboards. I started with Scene 1, page 1.

John came by to see how I was doing and looked at the traditional storyboard panels I had already produced.

No! I love your comics. Draw these boards so that they look like comic book pages.”

I asked John if he wanted to guide me in any way to come closer to his vision of the film.

I’ll never forget his response:

“Just draw them as if it was your movie. I already know how I’m going to shoot every frame of this film. But if you come up with something better, I’ll use it — and I’ll take credit for it!”

Now that’s a smart director.

(One of my “storyboard” pages from Conan the Barbarian)

I quickly discovered that my new boss, Ron Cobb, was not just a great artist — he was a genius. The best time I ever spent on a film was the two years I spent in a room with Ron Cobb. It was like sitting next to a fountain that gushed great ideas all day long, seemingly effortlessly. I’m a competitive guy (in the most positive sense of the word, I hope), so working with Cobb really inspired me to up my game. Ron’s wife, Robin Love, observed that we improved each other as artists. Ron became better at figure drawing and I became a much better designer through our influencing each other.

I believe I have only met one other genius in this biz — that’s Jean “Moebius” Giraud. Knowing both those guys made me curious as to the nature of genius. What did they have in common?

Both, I discovered, approached life with a child-like joy. You could watch the worst movie with Jean and he would always find something positive to take away from it. This non-judgmental approach completely frees and unblocks one’s creativity. Prejudging anything restricts your vision and excludes potential great ideas before they are even given a chance to be born.

Originally, John had hired Cobb to design Half of the Sky, a Jedediah Smith mountain man movie that Milius had written and was going to direct (coincidentally, Jedediah Smith is an ancestor of mine).

Two of Ron’s stunning  Half of the Sky production designs. For more, visit

Around that same time, John also got hired to overhaul Oliver Stone’s Conan the Barbarian screenplay. John ended up rewriting the entire thing. Milius fell in love with Conan. He eventually made the decision to drop Half of the Sky and direct Conan the Barbarian, while retaining Ron as his designer.

Dino DeLaurentiis became the main producer, although his daughter Raffaella, along with Buzz Feitshans, fulfilled most of the on-the-ground producing duties. John told me how he ended up with Dino.

“Dino’s very smart and has an eye for directing talent. He waits until a talented director has made a flop. Then, when everyone in The Biz is pissing on that director, Dino swoops in, telling the director how much he believes in him. In this moment of weakness, Dino signs the director to a three-picture deal. That’s what happened to me. My most personal film (Big Wednesday) bombed and when everyone else was blasting me, Dino came to me with tremendous sympathy and got me to sign a three-picture deal with him. Big, big mistake.”

John Milius was writing Conan the Barbarian as Ron and I were working on it. John would bring in a few pages each day and then nervously pace outside our office as we read them, waiting for our verdict.

His writing was absolutely brilliant. The tender, romantic parts that this big bear of a man had written brought me to tears.

As 1941 was trying so very hard to wrap up, Christopher Lee became a regular visitor to the Conan art department. Man, did this man love his voice! You could hear him coming from half a block away. It was clear to us that he was in our room trying to influence Cobb and I to suggest that Chris be cast in Steven’s next project, Raiders of the Last Ark.

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #8

FILM #7: Conan the Barbarian (1979-1980); Part Two
Written and Directed by John Milius
Production designed by Ron Cobb

How I Got the Gig, continued…
My friend, Conan the Barbarian production assistant Bob Greenberg, also told me that Ron Cobb had been hired to be the movie’s production designer. This amazed me, as the world primarily knew Cobb as a political cartoonist for the Los Angeles Free Press (a free lefty hippy weekly newspaper). Ron’s brilliant Freep cartoons were distributed to underground newspapers all over the country. Ron invented the ecology symbol as one of his weekly cartoons — and donated it to the Public Domain.

I think the cartoon panel above finely exhibits the depth of thinking that goes into everything Ron creates. Cobb said that within two weeks his symbol was being used all over the world. If you would like to see the original art, it’s on permanent display at the Smithsonian.

I was dying to see what Cobb was doing on Conan. Bob offered to give me a tour of the Conan offices. I had to decline, as I was up to my ears in movie poster commissions. During one week in August, I had six movie posters in the Los Angeles Times Calendar section. There was just no way I could get away to see the Conan stuff.

I finally got a break in my schedule — but I didn’t head over to the Conan offices. Instead, I went to the ABA (American Booksellers Association). The ABA trade show is held every year, usually in New York or Los Angeles, sometimes in Las Vegas or Chicago. It’s every editor and publisher in the entire country, all in one big room. Taking a portfolio from booth to booth is a great way for an illustrator to pick up work. I had just entered the show’s main lobby. I had my portfolio with me, all ready to nab some new jobs, when whom do I run into but Ron Cobb.

Ron told me that I was his first choice for his first art department hire — but that he had an agreement with the show’s writer-director, the legendary John Milius (his writing credits include Dirty Harry, Jeremiah Johnson, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, Magnum Force, Red Dawn and Apocalypse Now; he also wrote and directed Dillinger and The Wind and the Lion). They gave each other veto power over anyone the other guy wanted to include in the art department.

Ron asked me if I could come by the Conan offices and drop off my portfolio for John to see. I agreed. I thought it might be fun to see how movies were made.

The next day was Friday. I drove over to the Conan offices which at that time were part of Milius’ A-Team (the name of his production company) offices across the street from the Warner Brothers Studios. Milius happened to be there when I arrived. He quickly looked through my book.

(This is a page — before adding the text — from Harlan Ellison‘s anti-drug tale “Shattered Like a Glass Goblin”. Toby Bluth, brother of Don Bluth, modeled for the naked man on this page, the story’s lead character)

John fondly remembered the Harlan Ellison Heavy Metal story (“Shattered Like a Glass Goblin”) that I had illustrated for the Byron Preiss EC Picto-Fiction style book, The Illustrated Harlan Ellison, then handed the book back to me and headed for the door. When he got to the doorway Milius cocked his head slightly to the right and dramatically barked “Hire ‘im!” over his shoulder.

I went in to see Buzz Feitshans, the film’s line producer (the producer who budgets and schedules the movie and actually works day-to-day on set on the film). I would be hired for two weeks as the flm’s storyboard artist. When he told me what I would be making on Conan, I nearly fell off the chair laughing. It was about 10% of what I was making in advertising. I thought, “What the hell — it’s only for two weeks. I can take the financial hit — and it might be fun to see how movies are made.”

I signed on.

Green to the Film Biz, what I didn’t know was that newbies are always hired for just two weeks. The film company wants to find out if you can deliver and whether or not you’re a jerk and difficult to work with. If you are, at the end of two weeks you’re let go. No harm, no fowl, no hurt feelings or embarrassing situations. If you deliver the goods, however, and are considered great to work with, your time on the film is extended (in my case, on Conan, for two years).

John Milius and Buzz Feitshans were also producing 1941 for Steven Spielberg, which was beginning to finally wrap up, so Steven’s office was across from the office Cobb and I shared.

Kathleen Kennedy was our receptionist.

Quite an amazing entry point into the real big time Movie Biz.