Pygar’s New Wings: John Phillip Law RIP

I’m stunned, saddened to learn of John Phillip Law’s death on Tuesday at the age of 70. He was suffering from terminal cancer, but he didn’t let it be known. I was fortunate to meet him and enter his world way back in 2001, when this SKIDOO obssession turned out to be much more than a hunch. I’ll never forget the first time I walked into his living room; he looked at my arm and said in that heavy Diabolik voice, “What happened to your other wing?”

I had met John through supercool Rick Gerrard, famed music producer who worked with Harry Nilsson (and produced Jefferson Airplane’s classic “Surrealistic Pillow” — had I known at the time I would have dogpiled Rick with questions) through Curtis Armstrong, Nilsson Scholar, through a nice guy in the Hollywood Book & Poster. At the annual NilssonFest that Curtis was hosting, I told Rick about my SKIDOO interest and the next day he saw John, who passed on his number to me. So when I say Six Degrees of SKIDOO, I mean Six Degrees…

John always had a very 1960’s European look, very tall, with his stark chiseled face and bright intense eyes. He made a perfect naive Russian sailor in THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING (1966) under the tutelege of Alan Arkin and director Norman Jewison. He got very hot, and Otto Preminger snapped him up for what he hoped would be the next GONE WITH THE WIND, his adaptation of the Southern race relations potboiler, HURRY SUNDOWN (1966). Law’s wife was played by Faye Dunaway, and in a scene where they kiss, Preminger was so dissatisfied he bumped their heads together. Hard. But there were no hard feelings. “Otto was a mean motherfucker, but I liked him.”

Of course, it was his role as “Stash” the hippy in the incredible SKIDOO that cemented him to my heart. At his home, he showed me a treasure trove of photos through the years from his films. He told me great stories about living with Roger Vadim and Jane Fonda during the 1968 making of cult classics BARBARELLA and DANGER: DIABOLIK, with John the only man to pull off a suit of tight black leather. His confident, crazed laugh and perfect comic book posture made this the best 60’s James Bond film never made. We talked about his amazing period when his brother Tom Law and him owned “The Castle,” a legendary 60’s mansion and hang-out spot for folk like Bob Dylan and The Beatles. Even Preminger came by to partake the happening.

I told John I liked him as one of the creepy hunters in the rarely-seen, disturbing OPEN SEASON (1974) with Peter Fonda and William Holden. We talked about stop-motion god Ray Harryhausen when John assayed the title part in THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1974). I also praised him for one of my HBO mainstays, ATTACK FORCE Z (1980) a terrific and bloody action yarn with co-star Mel Gibson, reminiscent of THE WILD GEESE (1976). He had a nice role in CQ (2003) Roman Coppola’s charming, under-rated hommage to genre films like DIABOLIK. Overall, John was a traveller, he spoke four languages, and for him, making movies seemed to be just as much about the journey as the destination. I taped a career interview with him last year and you can see a youtube excerpt, focused on SKIDOO.

When Martin Lewis contacted me last year about screening SKIDOO at the Mods & Rockers Film Festival, I was ecstatic and immediately invited John to the second and final screening at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica. Despite some recent hip surgery, he showed up in good health and high spirits. The house was packed and along with the last minute surprise of Blake Edwards showing up for THE PARTY (1968), it was fantastic to watch SKIDOO with John and a big crowd. I liked the attention he got from the fans.

I last talked to John a few weeks ago since the SKIDOO dvd I made for him wouldn’t play in his system. I promised to make him another, which I didn’t get to. He told me about the Italian biography coming out on him, DIABOLICAL ANGEL, and he mentioned that he was tired of jetting around. “You earned the right to be tired,” I told him. We had a couple of other SKIDOO screenings set-up for him to attend, but they haven’t come soon enough. I’m glad we had him for the Aero. On my answering machine, I have his rumbling voice letting me know whenever I need him for the next screening, he’ll be there. I believe him, and I’m not erasing that message.

John Phillip Law & Friend, July 29, 2007. Photo by Matt Rabin

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15 Responses to “Pygar’s New Wings: John Phillip Law RIP”

  1. Wow, sad news indeed. Honored to have been at this screening…thanks to you.

  2. christian Says:

    Yeah, I’m glad we all got to see him watch SKIDOO. He enjoyed it enormously.
    And Blake Edwards!

  3. […] Preminger’s acid tinged cult favorite Skidoo organized by Christian Divine. Christian wrote a much better remembrance of the man than I can attempt here. Check it […]

  4. Wow, this is a really great, heartfelt piece, Christian. I haven’t seen Skidoo (sorry!), but I can nonetheless appreciate how awesome it must have been to grow so close to someone who brought one of your favorite films to life.

    I’m sure it meant the world to John to know that his films continue to live on through dedicated fans like you.

  5. Thanks Craig, Daniel. And yes, Daniel, you shall see SKIDOO. Oh yes.
    Everybody will. Someday.

    I advise you to rush out and grab a copy of DANGER: DIABOLIK if you haven’t seen that.

  6. Terrific tribute, Christian. I have only the vaguest of memories of him in Sinbad and Russians due to not seeing them since I was a kid. They were both fun films. The warmth and respect you felt for him comes through beautifully. What an interesting life he led. He clearly welcomed yor interest as a smart, personable, and knowledgeable enthusiast in bringing a couple of his neglected films to a wider public.

  7. Thanks, man. I loved hearing the stories. John even dated his stunning DIABOLIK co-star, which makes his candle burn three times as bright. He was a cool, laid-back guy.

  8. A great, touching piece, Christian.

  9. christian Says:

    Thank you. I went to Amoeba to grab DIABOLIK, but gone baby, gone.
    Instead I bought the new 42nd Street Forever EXPLOITATION EXPLOSION, which judging from the opening moments, promises to be the best.

  10. Agreed, an amazing piece, and I am really glad I saw “Skidoo.”

    Sad news is never a good thing, but you sure treated it with much class and respect.

    May he rest in peace.

  11. christian Says:

    It’s a good weekend to have a Law Fest…

  12. Aussie Boy Says:

    Nice job, mate.

  13. Stalker of Christian Says:

    Now we know what you look like…

  14. Thanks Aussie Boy.

    And SOC, that is about my least flattering shot. But I like it.

  15. […] was fortunate enough to be near Blake Edwards twice in the past few years. The first was at the double feature of THE PARTY and SKIDOO as part of the Mods & Rockers Film Festival, where I was privileged to be interviewed along […]

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