‘Es­capes’

The ad­ven­tur­ous life of ac­tor-racon­teur Hamp­ton Fancher makes for a fun story.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - KEN­NETH TU­RAN FILM CRITIC ken­neth.tu­ran@la­times.com

Life of ac­tor-pro­ducer-screen­writer Hamp­ton Fancher is ex­plored.

“Es­capes” is as un­con­ven­tional as its sub­ject, demon­strat­ing the charm­ing things that can hap­pen when a life in no way or­di­nary gets doc­u­mented by a film­maker most un­usual.

The di­rec­tor in ques­tion is Michael Almereyda, a stal­wart of the in­de­pen­dent world whose cred­its in­clude dra­matic fea­tures like the fine “Ex­per­i­menter” and Ethan Hawke’s Man­hat­tan­based con­tem­po­rary “Ham­let” as well as the doc­u­men­tary “Wil­liam Eg­gle­ston in the Real World.”

The sub­ject of this doc­u­men­tary, Hamp­ton Fancher, is more elu­sive and less well known, though he shouldn’t be. As an ac­tor and screen­writer he’s been un­ex­pect­edly cen­tral to pop­u­lar cul­ture though he ha­bit­u­ally lives just out­side the spot­light. Almereyda, who is a friend, wants to change that.

As an ac­tor, Fancher has been a guest star in dozens of TV shows, in­clud­ing 1960s peren­ni­als such as “Bo­nanza,“ “Gun­smoke,” “Perry Ma­son” and “Death Val­ley Days.” And as a screen­writer he was in­stru­men­tal in cre­at­ing “Blade Run­ner” and has a credit as well in the forth­com­ing “Blade Run­ner 2049.”

More to the point where “Es­capes” is con­cerned, con­structed as it is around a se­ries of on-cam­era in­ter­views, Fancher is also a world-class racon­teur, a mes­mer­iz­ing talker whose anec­dotes thrive on voice, de­tail, mis­di­rec­tion and an abil­ity to hold our in­ter­est whether the nar­ra­tive is go­ing any­where or not.

The sto­ries them­selves of­ten in­volve ac­tresses who’ve been cen­tral to Fancher’s life, in­clud­ing Teri Garr, Sue Lyon and Bar­bara Her­shey. These sto­ries would be se­duc­tive in and of them­selves, but the way Almereyda has cho­sen to present them makes them special.

The di­rec­tor’s idea, sim­i­lar to the one that an­i­mated Bill Mor­ri­son in the won­der­ful “Daw­son City: Frozen Time,” is to play Fancher’s voice be­hind scenes se­lected from all those TV ap­pear­ances. These se­quences, al­ways visu­ally in­ter­est­ing in and of them­selves, of­ten pro­vide ironic coun­ter­point to the story Fancher is telling. When he talks of a pe­riod when he strug­gled as an ac­tor, for in­stance, we see a clip of him in a western, strug­gling to stay on his horse as it am­bles across the desert.

Af­ter open­ing with a ram­bling anec­dote about his re­la­tion­ship with Garr, a tale that gets us used to Fancher’s ro­coco ver­bal style, “Es­capes” back­tracks to give us the man’s back story, us­ing still pho­tos and type on screen to fill us in on his un­usual pre-Hollywood life.

Fancher, we’re told, is an L.A. na­tive who flunked the third grade twice. In­ter­ested in dance from an early age — he helped his strip-tease-artist older sis­ter chore­o­graph her rou­tines — he ran away from home at age 16, changed his name to Mario Mon­tejo and went to Barcelona to study fla­menco danc­ing be­fore mar­ry­ing a psy­chi­atric nurse five years his se­nior when he was 18.

Fancher’s ca­reer be­gan in 1958 when he was spot­ted on the cor­ner of Sun­set Boule­vard and Fair­fax Av­enue and cast in the grade-Z horror item “The Brain Eaters.” Things could go only up­hill from there.

Many of Fancher’s anec­dotes in­volve the women in his life. Some are cel­e­brated, like “Lolita’s” Lyon, his sec­ond wife, whom he tried to in­ter­est in reading JeanPaul Sartre. “We were young and en­thralled with each other,” he says, adding, “We didn’t have any­thing in com­mon.”

Also talked about a lot is Brian Kelly, the ac­tor and friend who starred with celebrity dol­phin Flip­per in both tele­vi­sion and fea­ture film in­car­na­tions.

Per­haps “Es­capes’ ” best story, how­ever, in­volves a woman whose real name we never find out, a god­for­saken trip to Wilkes-Barre, Pa., to pro­mote a ter­ri­ble fea­ture, and a great kicker of an end­ing.

Though he didn’t sus­pect it at the time, Fancher’s most sig­nif­i­cant film project was the orig­i­nal “Blade Run­ner,” and his sto­ries of his en­coun­ters with mer­cu­rial sci­ence-fic­tion writer Philip K. Dick and how he came to write nu­mer­ous drafts of the film are can­did, in­for­ma­tive and de­light­ful. As is this sin­gu­lar film.

Grasshopper Film

THE DOC­U­MEN­TARY “Es­capes” in­cludes scenes from shows Hamp­ton Fancher, right, has guest-starred in.

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