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Leonard Maltin Interview: A Film Critic's Unlikely Road to Hollywood

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Image attributed to Jessie Maltin

Leonard Maltin

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his 30-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, was appointed by the Library of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation and teaches the most popular class at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

Perhaps, the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park (or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He is the co-host of the popular podcast Maltin on Movies with his daughter, Jessie. Starstruck: My Unlikely Road to Hollywood, his debut memoir, a love letter to the magic of film and television and a testament to the singular contributions Maltin has made to American entertainment, was recently released.

"When Entertainment Tonight came along, it was such a fluke. I was not seeking a career in television. I stumbled into one, and it changed everything about my life."

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Leonard, some interviewers do not like to be interviewed. What about you?

Leonard Maltin: Oh, I have no problem.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: I haven’t devoured the entire book yet, but what I have read was highly entertaining.

Leonard Maltin: Oh, I’m glad.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did you leave anything out of the book?

Leonard Maltin: There a lot of things I’ve deliberately kept to myself. But what I find is that I keep talking to friends about the book, and I tell stories. They say, “Is that in the book?” I say, “Gee, no.” (laughs) So apparently I have a fair amount left over.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: You’ve written that whether it was meeting your wife, writing the Movie Guide or getting the Entertainment Tonight (ET) opportunity, nothing in your life was planned. What do you think you would be doing today if you hadn’t been in the right place at the right time?

Leonard Maltin: I’d probably still be freelance writing. Whether or not I’d be making a decent living at it, I don’t know. When Entertainment Tonight came along, it was such a fluke. I was not seeking a career in television. I stumbled into one, and it changed everything about my life. For one thing, it brought my wife and me somewhat kicking and screaming out to California. That was a big upheaval, a positive one, but we were dyed-in-the-wool New Yorkers. Then just the credential that came with being on a hit television show opened all sorts of doors that I couldn’t have opened on my own.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: I liked when you said that if there was any way to dodge publicists and reach the person directly, your chances of success in getting an interview were infinitely better.

Leonard Maltin: You related to that.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Absolutely. My, how times have changed!

Leonard Maltin: Everything about the communication field has changed. I realized I could do sort of a business, a timeline of my work activities tied exclusively to technology from a mimeograph machine to a job printer to xerography. Gosh, when I did my first book, I had to submit my illustrations. With great trepidation, I turned over many precious 8 x 10 photos and had to pray that they handled them gently and got them back to me. Sometimes, they didn’t. Now, I make a high-res scan, and the photo never leaves my property.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: I miss your books. I even miss the original format of TV Guide. It’s so much easier to find information online, but there’s just no personal touch there anymore.

Leonard Maltin: No, there isn’t. Here and there, you find people who are offering that. Some of those personal touches are a little weird (laughs). Some are more than a little weird. But there’s some good people who use it as a soapbox where they can express themselves.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: You hold the Guinness Book of World Records for the shortest movie review ever, and it was simply “No.”

Leonard Maltin: Yes, and that was not my doing. It was submitted by a reader to the Guinness people. They kindly brought it to the attention of the Guinness editors. They reasoned it out and figured there couldn’t be a shorter movie review. But you only have half the story. I’ll fill in the rest. The name of the 1948 musical that very few people have seen is called Isn’t it Romantic? My review is, “No.”

Smashing Interviews Magazine: (laughs) So that took care of the question and what happened in the movie.

Leonard Maltin: To your point, it’s not a highly descriptive review, I have to admit.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Rex Reed attacked Melissa McCarthy’s weight in Identity Thief.How do you not cross that line as a film critic?

Leonard Maltin: Because I choose to not cross that line. Very early on at Entertainment Tonight, a movie came out called Rhinestone with Sylvester Stallone and Dolly Parton. I liked them both. But I thought the movie was dumb and kind of lazy writing. I knew that some of the other critics, especially television critics, would be taking cheap potshots at the movie. I decided to do it very straight and say that it was a shame that two such charismatic stars got themselves in such a turkey. So I made no attack on them at all.

But about a week later, Stallone showed up at an event that my colleague, Jeanne Wolf, was covering for Entertainment Tonight. They had always gotten along. Jeanne invited Stallone to step over to our mike, and he said, “No. I can’t, Jeanne, not after what that critic of yours said about me. I don’t mind constructive criticism, but he was vicious.” (imitating Stallone’s voice) So you can’t win (laughs).

Smashing Interviews Magazine: How much trouble did you and Roger Ebert actually get into giving Gremlins (1984) bad reviews?

Leonard Maltin: My trouble was on a personal level, and it had an ultimate happy outcome. I can’t speak for Roger. I didn’t care for the film. I thought it was mean-spirited, very well made but mean-spirited. Joe Dante, the director, and I have known each other since we were teenagers. We’re not close, close buddies, but we like each other, and we stayed in touch. He grew up in South Jersey. I grew up in Northern New Jersey.

We found ourselves out here embarking on new careers, and suddenly, I’m on this hit TV show. If I were at a newspaper, I would’ve recused myself, you know, and had another person review this movie. But there was no one else at ET to review it but me. It was a big, big release with Steven Spielberg’s name on it, and I had to review it. I thought about soft-pedaling my remarks, and I said, “No. All I have going for me is my credibility. I have to be honest.” I hope it wasn’t cruel, but I was honest, and it caused a rift between Joe and me, and I understand that. No one wants to be criticized including me, and I’ve been criticized for my books. I can quote all my bad reviews for you just like any actor can.

A couple of years later, Joe’s producer partner called and said, “We’re doing a sequel, and this time the gremlins are going to invade a television network and interrupt all the shows. One of them is going to be a movie review show, and we’d like you to be the host.” I said, “I think I owe you that much.” So there I was on a Warner Bros. soundstage being directed by Joe. They gave me a copy of the VHS cassette of Gremlins. He said, “Just use your own words.” (laughs) So I improvised a bad review.

It’s got to be a first. Maybe not a first, but I think it’s got to be the only time that a critic has been encouraged to give a bad review by the maker of that movie and its sequel in the sequel. It got me on two Topps collector cards, what we used to call gum cards, so that’s a real step toward immortality (laughs).

Smashing Interviews Magazine: (laughs) It is indeed. I think every interviewer has had at least one interview that just doesn’t go very well. I usually prepare so much that I end up with numerous questions in case one or two subjects flop. What do you do in that situation?

Leonard Maltin: Exactly what you just said. Yeah. I just try to plow ahead and hope that persistence will eventually wear them down (laughs). Sometimes that works, and sometimes it does not. Did I tell the Richard Dreyfuss story in the book? I can’t remember if I do.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: I don’t believe so. I loved the Katharine Hepburn story, by the way.

Leonard Maltin: Oh, thank you. That was very special. But I met Richard Dreyfuss briefly once or twice, and he seemed fun. He certainly had the gift of gab. So I didn’t anticipate any trouble at all. It was on a junket for the movie Once Around with Holly Hunter and Danny Aiello. The only problem was ET used its clout to get the first or second interview at the junket weekend, and something had gone terribly wrong. There was a schedule mix-up. We had the last interview of a three-day weekend (laughs).

Smashing Interviews Magazine: (laughs) Oh, no!

Leonard Maltin: Yeah. This is at the Four Seasons Hotel where we would book our own suite. We wouldn’t use their stock backdrops. ET would build its own piece of scenery. So as we were setting up, Richard Dreyfuss came in because he knew our cameraman. He came in to say hello, and we all said, “Hi. See you soon.” Great. But then Holly Hunter had a plane she had to catch, so we had to do her first, and then Lasse Hallstrom, the director, also was leaving town.

So anyway, it was another two hours before we saw Dreyfuss again, and steam was coming out of his ears. He was so furious. His publicist, one of the earlier publicists in town, who obviously had no control over his client, not that anyone necessarily ever does, didn’t stop and diffuse that anger before Dreyfuss came storming into our room. He came in, sat down and said, “Alright! Ask me something about this film I haven’t been asked 100 times this weekend!” I thought he was kidding. But he wasn’t.

I said, “So how much of Sam is based on you, and how much of you will we find in Sam?” Richard said, “Ugh!” So he wasn’t kidding. People said, “What did you do?” I said, “What could I do?” (laughs) I keep telling myself that if this was today, I’d like to think that I would stop the two cameras and say, “Richard, I’m sorry they made you wait so long. That wasn’t our fault or our intention. If you could just give me 10 minutes, we can all go home, and we’ll plug the movie tomorrow on the show.” But I didn’t do that. I just forged ahead.

I couldn’t help but feel that once he got into telling me one story, one anecdote, that the words would start to flow because he likes to talk, and he’s got a great sense of humor. Then, I learned to listen for the sound bites. I knew if I had three sound bites, we had a story for the film, and that plus the film clips would make a decent story for ET. I heard two or three of them go by, and then I called it and said, “Thanks very much.” Then he posed for pictures, and suddenly, he’s friendly. Aw, geez.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: That ranks right up there with your worst interviews of all time?

Leonard Maltin: Oh, yeah.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Have you ever had a publicist tell you that you could not ask a question on a particular subject?

Leonard Maltin: You know, I hit very little of that because ET decided not to send me on the most volatile newsworthy subjects (laughs). So I escaped a lot of that.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: There was a certain mystique among Hollywood’s Golden Age actors that doesn’t exist as much today or even before social media. You were so very fortunate to capture the words of many of those legends.

Leonard Maltin: Yes, indeed, and I never took it for granted. It was always exciting and always fun.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did you form lasting friendships?

Leonard Maltin: Very few. But I was aware of that because one of my mentors was Bob Thomas who was the AP Hollywood man for 50 years, starting in 1944. His father was a publicist, so he was really brought up out here. He got it, you know? He understood how the game worked. He said to me when I met him in my teens, “You know, I have no friends in show business.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Oh, I know plenty of people and have some nice relationships, but they’re not my friends.” The key to me was that he knew the difference. He knew the difference between having a pleasant association with Mr. X or Madame Q and being able to call them friends. That always rings in my head as a reminder that there has to be some distance.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Is there someone you’ve always wanted to interview, but it never happened?

Leonard Maltin: I’ve never interviewed Jack Nicholson. I’ve met him several times for the length of a chat at a social event. He’s always been very pleasant to me. To be honest, I haven’t really pursued it, and I should.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: You and your daughter, Jessie, have a podcast together. I assume she learned about the business from a very young age?

Leonard Maltin: She didn’t have much choice. People always assume that she’s going to follow in my footsteps, and that’s not her intention or her plan. We just like working together, and she has absorbed so much, not just firsthand but by osmosis. She knows a lot because she grew up around it, and the people at ET were very, very kind to her and very generous in spirit when she’d come to visit. She’s well grounded.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Do you guys do movie reviews?

Leonard Maltin: No, we don’t. We just do interviews. We do hour-long interviews with a variety of guests. In some cases, Jessie knows more than I do. She books some of the guests, and when it’s somebody like Josh Hartnett or people of that generation, she knows more about them that I do. She’s really followed their careers more closely than I have. So she’s a real particular asset in moments like that. But we just enjoy chatting with people.

We interviewed Ken Burns for his country music miniseries documentary on PBS, and Jessie has known him since she was 10 years old because we see each other at the Telluride Film Festival every year. Ken was generous enough to give us an hour of his time. He was on his publicity tour in LA. Jessie said, “This is the first time we’ve ever talked about your work.” Usually, they’re talking about Ken’s kids and grandkids. When Jessie and Ken’s daughter, Lilly, were both 10 years old, they sold lemonade at the Telluride Film Festival at a stand alongside Candice Bergen and and Louis Malle’s daughter. They were all 10. My wife just walked in the room. When my wife walks in, she’s like the automatic fact-checking backup.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: And you two have been married and fact-checking for almost 50 years.

Leonard Maltin: 46 years. We’re heading toward the 50-year mark.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: I believe I heard Alice. What did she say?

Leonard Maltin: She said, “Maybe,” after I said we were heading toward 50 years. She’s in a good mood, yeah (laughs).

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Leonard, how’s your health these days?

Leonard Maltin: Well, I’m functioning, and that’s the bottom line. I’m not as quick on the uptake. I’m a little slower physically in terms of walking, getting helped out of a chair and walking across the room (laughs). I don’t mean to make light of it. Everybody I’ve met who has Parkinson’s had different symptoms and different degrees of difficulty.

We apparently were lucky to have caught mine early enough that medication helps deal with the most obvious symptoms. I’m not shaking, although I get unexpected body movement at different times. I writhe a bit while sitting in a chair. But I’m still able to type, and I’m grateful. Parkinson’s is becoming so widespread actually and men are almost entirely affected by it. I’m hoping in my lifetime or the near future that there will be new discoveries and new breakthroughs.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: That is my hope also, and I truly wish you well.

Leonard Maltin: Thank you.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: I hear that soon you will be known as “grandpa.”

Leonard Maltin: Yes! Weeks away. We know it’s going to be a little girl, and it’ll be our first. Jessie’s an only child. So this is a big deal. Alice had several miscarriages, and then Jessie was our miracle baby. Alice was 42 when she got pregnant. Everything about this is just phenomenal and extraordinary. Jessie and her husband Scott live with us. So we’ll be very hands on.

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