the queerty interview

The Man Who Made Christopher Atkins A Sex Symbol Now Brings You Penis Stories

Christopher Atkins_Blue Lagoon
Christopher Atkins, The Blue Lagoon

Director Randal Kleiser has created numerous cinematic images that linger indelibly in the minds of gay men. After launching his career helming TV films like The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (starring John Travolta as a teen born without an immune system) and Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway (Brady Bunch‘s Eve Plumb as a young hooker opposite ’70s hunk Leigh McCloskey) he moved onto theatrical blockbusters such as the high school musical Grease and the tropical coming-of-age adventure The Blue Lagoon, which made instant sex symbols of Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins. Go ahead and take a moment to remember leather-clad Travolta strutting like a peacock on the bleachers or a nude Atkins careening down a natural water slide or perhaps Peter Gallagher glistening naked in idyllic Greece in Summer Lovers. Since then Kleiser has made an eclectic array of films, including Big Top Pee-wee and It’s My Party, an autobiographical AIDS-themed drama. Now the 68-year-old is making his stage directorial debut with The Penis Chronicles (opening at West Hollywood’s Coast Playhouse on November 8), a world-premiere play about male sexuality. Kleiser took a break from rehearsals to chat with Queerty about creating sex symbols, the challenges of getting gay-themed films made and how his new penis play is completely relatable to everyone.

Queerty: Among the films you’ve directed are Grease, The Blue Lagoon and Summer Lovers. Gay men of a certain age must be deeply indebted to you.

Randal Kleiser: [Laughs] All kinds of people come up to me and say, “I found out I was gay when I saw The Blue Lagoon.” It’s because you had a choice, either person A or person B. Chris [Atkins] was great about the nudity. He was like, “Sure, I’ll jump in and swim naked.” There weren’t many studio films that featured frontal nudity in those days or even many afterwards.

Leigh McCloskey, Eve Plumb
Leigh McCloskey, Eve Plumb in Dawn

Many of the actors you directed such as John Travolta, Christopher Atkins, Peter Gallagher and Leigh McCloskey became immediate heartthrobs to the gay community. Did you know audiences would respond to these leading men in such a way?

I know the kind of look that I want to have in my films, which is attractive people. So I cast people that look great. When I set up a shot I made sure the lighting and make-up was right. That’s why everyone looks so good in my movies. It’s funny that when Leigh McCloskey was doing the love scene with Eve Plumb, normally they’ll give you a sock to wear over your privates but he didn’t want to do that, he used gaffers tape all over his crotch. [Laughs] It was very painful afterward.

Well, I guess you need to resort to extreme measures to keep Jan Brady away from the penis. You have an incredible number of films beloved by gay audiences on your resume. Were there any gay-themed projects that you tried to get made but couldn’t?

It’s My Party was very hard to get made. I might try to launch a play version I’ve written if The Penis Chronicles goes well. But movies, I haven’t really focused on that. There was a wonderful movie I did that no one saw called Getting It Right. It was with John Gielgud and Helena Bonham Carter and Lynn Redgrave. It’s a wonderful cast and a funny movie about a 31-year-old hairdresser in London who falls in love with his assistant. There are a lot of gay characters, but he’s straight. It’s very charming. Unfortunately, it didn’t get a big distribution, but it’s available on DVD.

VaselinaI want to share my theory about Grease, which goes against the conventional, anti-feminist opinion that Sandy had to make a sacrifice to keep her man. I see it as a pro-sex film and black-leather Sandy is a metaphor for the gay community becoming liberated during the ’70s.

That’s an interesting idea. I never thought of that. People from the ’50s coming out is like Sandy going from a goody two shoes to a wild sexy girl. I can see that. Other people saw Sandy’s message as if you want to get your man you have to become a tramp. I like your idea better.

tumblr_lfhtsrxfJy1qcud7fEach time I watch the film I become more suspicious that at least one of the T-Birds might have been closeted. The next time you watch it pay close attention to the way they look admiringly at Danny.

[Laughs] Maybe Kenicke was. When he and Danny Zuko hug each other there was a kind of bromance between them. I don’t think it was sexual. 

Do you stay in touch with John and Olivia [Newton-John, who starred as Sandy]?

I saw John last summer. The Academy had an outdoor showing of Grease so we had a reunion. It was great. I saw Olivia’s show in Vegas. She sang “Hopelessly Devoted to You” to me. It was really cute.

You had directed John in The Boy in the Plastic Bubble. What was your experience like with him then?

He was already a big star from Welcome Back Kotter so he had a huge following. This was his first leading role. He’d seen my Master’s thesis film at USC and it was a very emotional story about my grandmother and my family so I think he trusted me. We got along great. I was excited to have a chance to work with him because I loved his work on Kotter. Actually, he was the one who asked for me to direct Grease when he was hired by Paramount.

71895bab43593d0ca014f663496b8fcdAs you mentioned, your next film The Blue Lagoon certainly stimulated gay audiences. What are some of your favorite memories about that shoot?

One of the fun moments was when we filmed the scene when Chris was masturbating on the rock and Brooke comes up behind him and says “What are you doing?” He screams “Go away!” After we finished filming that Brooke came up to me and asked “What was he doing on the rock?” [Laughs] I said “Go ask your mother. She was 14 and had no idea what he was up to on that rock. That was a wonderful shoot. We were on an island in Fiji that had no roads or electricity and we built a tent city so the crew all lived in tents. We built a drive-in type screening with blankets in front of it where we would watch our dailies. We had a great time living on that island. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

You followed that with Summer Lovers, which I think is another empowering, pro-sex film. I’ve read that it was released at the same week Time magazine published a cover story on the herpes epidemic. That must have hurt.

That’s probably why it didn’t do well. I don’t remember that, but I do remember that it was at the tale end of the anything-goes, sexual freedom period and the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. I based that film on all the French movies I’d seen about menage a trois. I hadn’t seen American films that dealt with it so I wanted to make a French-type movie.

Peter Gallagher (center) in Summer Lovers
Peter Gallagher (center), Summer Lovers

Peter Gallagher emerged as a sex symbol. How did come to cast him?

I had Dennis Quaid set for the role. On  Friday he called and said his wife wouldn’t let him run around naked on an island with two women. On Saturday I was watching TV and saw The Idolmaker [a 1980 drama in which Gallagher played a rock star] and saw Peter and Sunday I called his agent and hired him. On Monday we were in Greece. It was really fast.

Big Top Pee-wee is still a lot of fun. How did you enjoy working with Paul Reubens?

Paul is great. He’d done the voiceover for Flight of the Navigator [Kleiser’s 1986 sci-fi adventure]. He was producing and starring in Big Top and we were social friends so I wanted to help him get the film done the way he wanted. I was working closely with him on all the story boards and everything. It was a really great collaboration. I wanted to help him get his vision on screen.

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Gregory Harrison, Eric Roberts, It’s My Party

It’s My Party [based on a goodbye party thrown by Kleiser’s ex-lover who facing imminent death from AIDS decided to die with dignity], which you mentioned earlier was definitely your vision. How challenging was it to get made?

That was a heavy situation. I took photos at the actual party and and put them into a book. I used that to write the screenplay. Then I took that book to Disney. They said if I directed Honey I Blew Up the Kid, they’d let me make an adult movie. So I took the book to Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg and I don’t think that’s what they had in mind for the adult movie. [Laughs] It didn’t work out so I took it to John Calley at United Artist and when I got in my car I received a call from my agent who said they wanted to do it. That was the most exciting day of my life. I didn’t think anyone would pick it up. He liked it so much he didn’t even wait until I’d driven away.

unnamedYou’re now directing a play in West Hollywood called The Penis Chronicles. What attracted you to this project?

It was written by Tom Yewell, who is the nephew of Tom Ewell, who costarred with Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch, and the guy who used to get me coffee. I wanted to help him get it launched. I thought maybe I should direct it. I really identified with the characters and the piece. It jumps off the page. Everyone is so specific and interesting.

Randal Kleiser
Randal Kleiser

What’s the show about specifically?

The subtitle is “Every Man’s Journey.” There’s a song for the play that opens and closes it and the lyrics are “every man’s journey begins with a cry” and then “every man’s journey ends with a sigh,” which is when you die. We have characters ranging from a 16-year-old who’s being teased in the showers at the gym because he hasn’t gone through puberty and has a tiny dick and is using a penis pump to try to grow up. There’s a farm boy alone on the farm coming out and revealing how hard it is. There’s a guy who got HIV from his girlfriend and a male prostitute who was a Wall Street banker who decided it was more interesting to do that work. There’s a drag queen who uses money from tricks to send her little brother to summer camp. There’s just all kinds of drama and interesting stuff. There’s a thread running through it. They’re all connected in some way.

What do you hope audiences take away from it?

An understanding of what men think and feel, which is hardly ever discussed. I’m sure most people will be able to relate to at least one of the characters in some way and have a stimulating conversation afterward.