Thursday, April 16, 2015

An Interview with "In the Company of Legends" Authors Joan Kramer and David Heeley

In their new book, In the Company of Legends, Joan Kramer and David Heeley chronicle their experiences while producing documentaries about some of Hollywood’s greatest stars. Beginning with Fred Astaire: Puttin’ on His Top Hat, Kramer and Heeley have profiled iconic performers such as Katharine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, John Garfield, and Errol Flynn. They also produced documentaries celebrating the 80th anniversary of Universal Pictures and the 75th anniversary of Columbia Pictures. Their prestigious work has been recognized by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, Directors Guild of America, and the CableACE Awards voters. Joan Kramer and David Heeley recently appeared on TCM, which screened their programs, and were interviewed in Newsweek. Amazingly, they still had time to sit down with the Café for an interview.

Café:  Your first Fred Astaire documentary opened a lot of doors for future productions. What were the keys to getting that first one produced?

Joan Kramer & David Heely:  Persistence and luck. Astaire did not want a show produced about him, and made that clear. Because he was a public figure, we proceeded anyway, not knowing that he controlled the usage of excerpts from his earlier (RKO) films.  Had we known, we likely would have given up the first time he said “No”. This was where it paid to be (partially) ignorant. In the end he gave us his permission “because of your tenacity”.

Café:  Other than securing some very elusive interviews, what were some of the greatest challenges in making your specials?

Kramer & Heeley:  It’s a boring answer, but financing was always the first hurdle to overcome. With that in place, and the interviewees lined up, we had to secure rights to all the materials we needed to illustrate our subject’s career. This was a big challenge in the Astaire shows, because MGM did not want to license any clips that were in their highly successful, and lucrative, series of That’s Entertainment movies. When we came to doing profiles about or with Katharine Hepburn, we used her to twist some arms for us.  Editing was never an easy task, as we were trying to tell a person’s life story in a limited amount of time – sometimes under an hour. Decisions about what to leave out could be excruciatingly difficult.

Café:  You convinced a lot of reluctant celebrities to give interviews. Which one was the most satisfying from that perspective?

Kramer & Heeley:  Persuading Katharine Hepburn to let us do a show about her in 1980--even though she would not appear in it -  was perhaps the most significant “Yes” of all, because that opened the door to many other shows, as well as to a rewarding friendship that lasted many years.

The authors with Robert Osborne on TCM.
Café:  What criteria do you consider when selecting an individual to profile?

Kramer & Heeley:  We were looking first for someone who was a legend in the world of movies, someone from that magical era when all the stars seemed to be just out of reach. The second criterion was that the person had not been profiled before, or if they had, the profile was less than comprehensive. We were lucky that, at the time we were making these shows, there was still a relatively large number of people who filled the bill.

Café:  Just doing the research for the interviews must have been time-consuming. From inception to final cut, how long on average did it take to make one of your documentaries?

Kramer & Heeley:  Research was definitely time consuming, because we knew we had to get everything right. The odds were that these shows would be around for a long time, and could well become the definitive biographies of their subjects. That said, the research period could be immensely satisfying, especially when we were able to dig up long lost material, or something that no-one had ever seen before, or find that established “facts” were not what happened after all.  A year of production was not unusual, though often we had much less than that.

Café:  I know it'd be putting you on the spot to ask which show was your favorite one...but which show was your favorite and why?

Kramer & Heeley:  Ask a parent who is their favorite child. Fred Astaire would never say who was his favorite partner. Hedging when that question is asked is not just to avoid having favorites, it’s because each show was in its own way special. We hope that comes across in the book. Many people choose Katharine Hepburn: All About Me. That is understandable, because it had a unique format (no-one on the show except Hepburn herself) and was the culmination of many years working with her. It’s certainly near the top of the list. But we’d prefer you to make that choice for us.

Café:  Do you have any future projects that you'd like to share with our readers?

Kramer & Heeley:  Making those shows was very satisfying, but also very hard work. They required the sort of energy output on a daily basis for months at a time that neither of us has anymore. We’ve retired from the movie and television production business, but we have enjoyed writing this book. Let’s see how it is received.

This post originated on the Classic Film & TV Cafe. If you are reading it on World Cinema Blog or another site that scraped this content, please go to the legal web site.


  1. Gosh, we never saw any of these documentaries but they all sound fabulous. Thanks for sharing this great interview, Rick!

  2. Fascinating interview. It sure teaches one about perseverance!

    1. Toto, I also thought that was insightful story about getting Fred's approval.

  3. Good interview, but I have to add that Fred said who was his favorite partner: first his sister Adele and then Rita Hayworth. He said that Rita was a wonderful dancer, a quick learner and very easy to work with.