From the time I commenced production on Lenny Bruce: Swear To Tell The Truth, until it received its premiere broadcast on HBO, thirteen years had come and gone. My standard joke was that I didn't know whether to release the film or have it Bar Mitzvah'd.
In high school, I was already interested in film and standup comedy. The movie Lenny (1974), directed by Bob Fosse and starring Dustin Hoffman, landed Bruce right onto my short list of teenage obsessions. I had to find out everything I could about the guy.
In 1984, I produced my first HBO special, The Great Standups which included a section on Lenny Bruce. In order to use the footage, I had to get a signed release from Lennys mother, Sally Marr who was 77 at the time and living not far from me in Los Angeles. Being such an integral part of the ''Lenny'' folklore, I had always wanted to meet Sally. Upon our first meeting, it was clear to me that the apple had not fallen far from the tree. Sally and I became fast friends. Before long, we were hanging out on a regular basis... lunches, dinners, comedy clubs. She was more than fifty years my senior, yet she generally had more stamina than I when it came to hanging out at the late-night joints. It wasnt unusual to see us coming out of a comedy club together at two in the morning. Sometimes shed fix me up with girls that Id be eyeing in these clubs, so the arrangement actually worked out pretty well on all counts.
As Sally became more familiar with my other documentary work, she started to bemoan the fact that Lenny had never been the subject of a quality PBS-style documentary. I got the message. In 1986 I put together a proposal for a three-part PBS series under the umbrella title of Shaping Laughter, which would profile Lenny Bruce along with Mort Sahl and Dick Gregory -- two other groundbreaking comics of the first rank.
PBS and CPB did provide some early seed money to launch the project, but after a year or so I was financing the shows out of my own pocket. It became clear that the three-parter would never survive as a series, so the shows split off into three separate documentaries. Mort Sahl: The Loyal Opposition aired as part of the ''American Masters'' series in 1989. Dick Gregory is still in progress.
In 1995, I took a chunk of money I had made on my feature film Mother Night and pumped it back into the Lenny film. I was able to put together a fairly refined cut, though not quite a finished product. I eventually got that early cut to Sheila Nevins at HBO who became very enthusiastic and offered me the needed financing to complete the film for a broadcast premiere on HBO.
Prior to the airing on HBO, in October of 1998 we had a limited theatrical run at the Film Forum in New York to qualify the film for a possible Oscar nomination in the documentary division. The strategy paid off and in 1999 the film was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Feature Documentary. (It was no surprise when I lost the award to the Steven Spielberg-produced Holocaust documentary, The Last Days. My sick joke at the time, when people asked me what I thought my chances were of winning, I'd always answer ''Six million to one.'')
After its broadcast on HBO, the film was nominated for an Emmy award for Outstanding Non-Fiction Special, and won the Emmy for Picture Editing of a Non-Fiction Special.
Producing this film was such a combination of negative and positive circumstances that I cant begin to relate the experience here in any meaningful way. Suffice it to say, I did what I set out to do : I paid tribute to a performer who changed my life and I gave Sally Marr (who had virtually become my ''adopted'' Grandmother) the tribute to her boy she had always dreamed of. I also made a lot of lifelong friends in the process.
Ironically, Sally died before the film was completely finished (as did Lotus Weinstock who also appears in the film), but she saw a near-complete rendition of the film at a screening where she received a standing ovation from the assembled crowd of 300.
I do get lots of e-mail asking if the film will be available on home video or DVD. These markets have been held up due to difficulties in obtaining the rights to music used in the film (original jazz recordings by Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, Ray Charles, etc.) I think I can now state with some assurance that the film will not be available for home video. (And no, I cannot make copies available to individuals for their personal viewing.) The good news is that if you find yourself in Los Angeles or New York, the film is available for viewing (along with most of my other works) at the Museum of Television & Radio.