Art mirrors life, or life mirrors art?

One of the most moving accounts I’ve seen of life on the frontlines of the nation’s healthcare system during the pandemic came from Michael Salvatore, MD, who recently wrote of his experience of being a “from an administrative afterlife” who “found myself at the bedside of a very scared and very hypoxic woman I had just admitted from the ER two hours earlier.”

Dr. Salvatore is a gifted writer. He referenced a 1960s television drama to make his point about the many stories yet to be told at his hospital in Lewes, Del., a city he described as a “smallish ‘Naked City.’” Salvatore also used “Naked City” in his lede, writing that as a child, there was a TV show known by that title, and at the conclusion of each episode, a voiceover said, “there are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one.”

Every time I hear or read something about the “Naked City,” I flashback to my junior year at Glendale High School, in Glendale, Calif. At that time, Naked City was a huge television success story. Think of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” because that’s how popular “Naked City” was, back in the day. And the producer was Sterling Silliphant, who today would be of similar stature to Vince Gilligan, who gave “spellbound” new meaning for television viewers with his smash AMC hit “Breaking Bad,” about a high-school chemistry teacher whose diagnosis of terminal cancer leads him into a life of crime “cooking” crystal methamphetamine. Silliphant, as they say in Hollywood, was golden.

Silliphant had a younger brother, Allan, a senior at Glendale High School. Allan became famous in his own right as a director and writer, known for “Navajo Code Talkers: The Epic Story” (1994) and “Stephenville Sightings” (2016).

I was a drama major, and hung with other hopeful high-school actors when Allen entered our orbit. He wanted to make a movie, and the incentive was that if it turned out to be successful, he’d show his brother Stirling – then the hottest and most sought-after Hollywood TV director. Who could refuse an offer like that?

Naturally, we needed money to fund the production, and as one of the lead actors, I was also one of the producers, dialing for dollars. I was constantly hitting up my dad, an actor and radio producer, for money to rent a professional-grade 16-millimeter camera and other gear. And every time I made the “ask,” he grilled me about the status of production: casting, script rewrites, location selection, and other film issues. He certainly wanted an accounting of his loan to us.

The movie essentially took place in a coffee house. Dimly lit coffee houses with beatnik poets riffing were the hip places to be hip in L.A. at the time. We shot the interiors in the Silliphant garage, in their mansion in the hills of Glendale. The plot also called for a murder scene. The actor whom I played across from, Ross Sullivan (remember that name), would be assaulted in a dark alley in downtown Los Angeles. On the appointed hour (the “call,” in movie lingo), for the murder scene, we drove into what was called at the time, and still is today, “Skid Row:” now the location of one of the largest homeless populations in the country. There we were: five fresh-faced high schoolers in the worst part of town, lugging an expensive 16-millimeter Arriflex camera along L.A.’s grimy, dark streets. As with any movie, rehearsing took much time. The choreography was as hard to nail down as executing the perfect pirouette in Swan Lake.

We rehearsed and rehearsed. Ross walks down the alley; the assailant confronts Ross; a fight ensues; the stab; the scream; the clutch of the wound, and Ross falls face down in the alley. Allan had managed to scale a fire escape ladder attached to an old brick building, precariously holding himself and the expensive Arriflex about two stories above the alley. We were now ready to lay down the scene on film. Ross was ready. The assailant was hiding nearby, ready to stab Ross. There was the obligatory countdown: “standby, speed, film, action.”

Suddenly, two LAPD patrol cars pull up with flashing red lights. They yell at us to line up against the brick wall, asking each of us for our driver’s licenses and home addresses – and, pointedly, asking to see our movie permit. We had none. We were told that this happens all the time in Skid Row, and for us to go straight home to our parents, where we belonged. We left.

The next day, my dad asked about the shoot. I told him about the police arriving with flashing red lights and then scolding us and sending us home.

“Did you keep the camera rolling?” my Hollywood dad asked. “No,” I sheepishly replied. “Do you know how much that costs, to rent those cops?!?” he thundered.

Fast forward to 2018. I received an email from my company, saying that a researcher had tracked me down and wanted to contact me. We connected. He introduced himself as an amateur researcher, although his full-time job was a professor of religious studies at a college in Texas.

He wanted to know about the high-school movie. We had never finished it, though, after the LAPD shut down our shoot. The researcher had a reproduction of the Glendale High School newspaper, with an article about the anticipated movie, along with a photo of Allan, Ross, another actor in the cast, and me. He asked specifically about Ross Sullivan: “Did you know him? “What kind of guy was Ross?” He explained that Ross had recently died, but also said Ross had been institutionalized in a mental hospital. I had no idea, having lost contact with him decades earlier.

Why this interest in the late Ross Sullivan? The researcher explained that Ross had been accused of killing a patron at a library in Riverside, Calif., and the victim’s parents, after all these years, were looking for closure on this tragedy. And that, of course, pointed to Ross Sullivan.

Ross, he said, was thought to possibly be the Zodiac Killer.

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