The Robert Redford of Russia and Me

Many years ago I went on a stakeout with the ‘Robert Redford of Russia.’ I was in my early 20’s, living in West Hollywood off the Sunset Strip, across from a house that had been owned by Bogart and Bacall, and a block from the Director’s Guild where stretch limos dropped starlets onto red carpets.

This was during a recession. Having no skills, I lived off money my parents had given me to ‘get started’ and random odd jobs. My daily routine consisted of waiting for phone calls, working on my artsy-but-non-commercial screenplay, writing coverage for free for the Avnet/Kerner company (see Fried Green Tomatoes), and waiting more for phone calls until afternoon reruns of Rosanne came on.

When I got a call, it was usually from one of the five temp agencies I was registered with. On this particular day, my roommate called. Melanie worked for a PR and production company. Sometimes Melanie threw me data entry jobs – typing up script and putting them on disc. Occasionally, Melanie’s had a job for me that brought me to the outer edge of glamour – like writing up newsletter stories for a Czechoslovakian film festival sponsored by Ivan Reitman, or for the premier of an Arthur Hiller film. Today’s request was nothing like that. Melanie’s boss Joan and her husband were suing an agent who owed them money. The sheriff’s deputy had made the minimal obligated attempts to serve the court summons. As the plaintiffs, Joan and her husband were not permitted to deliver the summons themselves. They need someone who would take $35 to wait around most the day for the agent to show up. At this point in my Hollywood career, I excelled at waiting around. The boss’s husband would come with me to finger the agent. This is how I wound up in an older model Camaro with parked on La Cienega outside a Hollywood agency on a stakeout with the ‘Robert Redford of Russia.’

I already knew about Yuri. I’d typed up a folder of Yuri’s press clippings for Melanie. Yuri had been an actor, director, and sex symbol in his native Russia. He defected from the Soviet Union, and came to Hollywood where he quickly got small parts in big films: he got killed in a Schwarzengger movie, and got laid in a Mickey Rourke film. I didn’t make up the The description ‘Robert Redford of Russia.’ I’d read it in an LA Times newspaper story about Yugi’s. At first defection must have been good, but the Soviet Union fell, and Yuri was hit by a car. The accident messed up some gland that regulated metabolism. As a result, the once muscular sex symbol was pudgy and easily tired. And the bit parts with major stars weren’t coming anymore.

Within a few minutes of our stakeout it is evident that the aging Robert Redford of Russia is very, very depressed and angry. Clearly, he has some good reason for his ill mood, but today all of his fury is directed at the mother-fucking agent that owes him money. As we wait in the old Camaro in view of the agent’s office building, we decide that this would make a pretty good screenplay (because this is Hollywood – and that’s what people do). It’s a comedy (dramedy?) about a likeable sad sack attempting increasingly ridiculous and desperate schemes to get to a powerful and evil agent that owed him money. I have some doubts. What would be the character arc? Could maybe the agent be less cartoony evil? “No! The agent has all of the power. He’s a motherfucker.” Also, I worry that working on this story would take time away from my own artsy-but-non-commercial screenplay. Still, the story has some possibilities, and besides it’s a prospect. Aside from sharing my first screenplay (about vampires before they were cool) with the director of Hardbodies, I had made no progress in Hollywood. This is the first time anyone had shown any interest in working with me. Perhaps I can partner with the Robert Redford of Russia to write and sell a screenplay.

Yuri breaks off our conversation with a thunderous announcement. “That’s him! That’s the asshole!” The agent walks out of the building. It is time for me to go to work. I start following the agent – one, two blocks up La Cienega. He has a head start, but my legs are long and I walk fast. To my surprise, my heart is beating fast enough to notice. I’m nervous – excited. I am trailing this guy, like someone in a movie. I am a hunter and this Hollywood fuck is my prey. Maybe everything else in Hollywood is beyond me, but I can get to this asshole. He crosses the street and goes into a trendy sandwich shop. I find him waiting to order at the counter. I say his name – whatever it was – and he looks at me with big startled deer eyes. “This is for you.” I hand him the summons.


The story should have ended here with Yuri feeling vindicated and me with possibly a new opportunity (and $35). But when I get back to Yuri the old Camaro would not start. We wait 45 minutes for a wrecker to come jump the car. We get several miles up Le Cienega and the car stalls again. This time we are only a few blocks from the office, so someone comes out to help us. Yuri invites me up to the office to discuss the screenplay. Perhaps this is a Russian thing, but he hands me a bologna sandwich with more mayonnaise than meat. We talk a little about the screenplay, but Yuri – who is easily tired with his screwed up metabolism – is ready for a nap. Our screenplay dies then. I suspect that our screenplay would have gone nowhere, but looking back at it – had I pushed a little harder – it would have at least gotten me out working with people. I think at the time I really didn’t believe that we could help each other. Instead, I went back to the apartment to my own artsy-but-non-commercial screenplay (that would never be finished), to Rosanne reruns, and to wait for call


Copyright 2014 – Brian Wittenbrook. Some names have been changed.

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