Richard Fleischer directed the (so far) only full-length feature film based on a Harry Harrison novel: Soylent Green was based on Make Room! Make Room!
Fleischer devotes a chapter of his autobiography Just Tell Me When to Cry (1993) to the making of the film, describing what it was like to work with the legendary Edward G. Robinson on what was to be Robinson’s last film.
“Movies are a funny business,” Fleischer writes on his opening page. “For some reason it is almost impossible to tell a serious story about the film industry without everyone laughing. The worse the disaster, the more hilarious it becomes. You can tell of careers being ruined, fortunes being lost, people being injured, or worse, and the reaction is always laughter.”
Fleischer’s book is filled with behind-the-scenes stories of what goes on during the planning and making of movies, and with quiet humour he describes what it’s like to work with some of the biggest names, and biggest egos, in the business.
For Edward G. Robinson, Fleischer has nothing but respect. The eighty-year-old actor’s health was failing (he had cancer), and he’d been almost forgotten by Hollywood, blacklisted as a result of his stand against the McCarthy witch-hunts. He was close to the end of his career and knew it. His involvement in Soylent Green caused the media to take notice of him again: ‘Now I know I’m dying,’ he said, ‘I’ve never gotten so much press.’
Robinson’s hearing was severely impaired, to the extent that he could only hear someone standing directly beside him. This caused some problems for the director – ‘CUT! … EDDIE! COME BACK! WE’RE NOT SHOOTING ANY MORE!’ – but after a couple of rehearsals the actor could time his performance perfectly, as though he could hear every other line spoken by the actors on set.
Whatever its short-comings as an adaptation of the Harry Harrison novel – the on-screen images capture pretty well the themes of the novel, but they’re sadly over-shadowed by the nonsensical ‘soylent green is people’ conspiracy – Soylent Green does provide us with an outstanding performance from Edward G. Robinson. Fleischer’s memoirs offer a poignant behind-the-scenes look of how that performance came about.