Death. It comes to us all. No get out of heaven or hell free card. And no matter how much we acquire or how many thousands of dollars we accumulate we cannot take it with us. This, I believe, is something Alan Sharp knew intrinsically.
I first met Alan when I was seven months pregnant. We arranged to meet in a café in the Waverley Market in Edinburgh and began to get to know one another as soon-to-be (almost) in-laws. Had his son and I married, Alan would have been my father-in-law. Either way, he was my daughter’s grandfather and that connection brought us together in the summer of ’89.
Aside from meeting the mother of his unborn grandchild, Alan had other business in town and was scheduled to give a couple of talks at the Filmhouse during the 1989 Edinburgh Film Festival. Highly regarded as a screenwriter, Alan began his career with The Last Run (1971), directed by Richard Fleischer (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) and starring George C. Scott. Four more movies followed in relative quick succession: The Hired Hand (1971), a western directed by and starring a post-Easy Rider Peter Fonda; Ulzana’s Raid (1972) with Burt Lancaster; Billy Two Hats (1974) with Gregory Peck; and Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975) with Gene Hackman as a gumshoe detective.
Knowing his celluloid history, I was slightly nervous at the prospect of meeting the man who’d worked with such iconic actors. What I found, however, was a man more interested in discussing newborn baby needs than his own successes.
Alan worked in the film industry for 40 years, writing and rewriting scripts, a good number of which went on to production even though the pace slowed, with his next most notable film being Sam Peckinpah’s The Osterman Weekend (1983) with John Hurt, Dennis Hopper and Burt Lancaster. Screenwriting is a unique business in that the writer gets paid for completed drafts whether or not the movie is made, and the factors governing its fate go far beyond the quality of the script itself. Alan explained that because of this he always wrote the first draft for himself, slotting in lines that he liked time after time, but when it came to the second draft he was more than happy to comply with producers’ wishes to “put the door here and the windows over there.” And once he’d finished the final draft he’d let go. If the movie was produced it was a bonus, in both senses of the word.
Born in Alyth, Scotland in 1934, Alan was adopted by a couple from Greenock on the banks of the Clyde. There he worked in the shipyards before marrying his first wife, with whom he had two children. Lured by London and a desire to write he left his young family and headed off “down the road”. In London he wrote a number of plays which were produced by the BBC and ITV, as well as two novels — A Green Tree in Gedde (1965) and The Wind Shifts (1967) — two-thirds of an unfinished trilogy. He won the Scottish Arts Council Award for the first novel, but the writing of the third book was interrupted by an even greater lure of screenwriting in L.A.
During his years in London Alan had two relationships that resulted in two more children, one with my daughter’s grandmother in Scotland and the other with the writer Beryl Bainbridge. Beryl wrote about her relationship with Alan in the book Sweet William, which was later made into a movie with the same title starring Sam Waterston and Jenny Agutter. In talking about the book, Alan said Beryl swore the story was a true depiction of their relationship, he swore not. The truth, I expect, lay somewhere in between with facts being fictionalised to create a suitable narrative. One true element of the story, even if details were in fact fictionalised, was that Alan had had an affair with Beryl’s friend, whom he later married. Living in L.A. with his new wife he had yet two more children, making a total of six by four women. Depending on your viewpoint, Alan was either a rake or an incorrigible lover of women.
Over time his children produced fourteen grandchildren, but despite my daughter’s father being one of Alan’s youngest, I met Alan in Edinburgh as the mother-to-be of his first grandchild. Initially I wondered if novelty drove his interest, but over the years this, along with his generosity, remained constant. When paying for my daughter’s education he once referred to it as a “willing obligation”. Less obligatory were the plane tickets he bought us to visit him in New Zealand and Los Angeles, each on multiple occasions. Not to mention being invited to holiday with him in Languedoc-Roussillon, France over the years. But Alan was very much a bringer together of people. Friends and family members close and far were brought into the fold and we weren’t the only benefactors of his generosity; he exercised this capacity with all those in his extended family.
Through his writing career Alan was in the fortunate position of earning his income independent of place. This gave him the freedom to divide his time between Tighnabruaich on the west coast of Scotland, Los Angeles, and Kawau Island in New Zealand — usually following the sun. Although we never spoke of this, I imagine Scotland gave him a sense of connection to his roots as well as proximity to his UK-based children, L.A. was the business hub where his agent and accountant lived, along with his U.S.-based children, and New Zealand was the quiet refuge where he spent his time writing, sailing and “working on the boat”.
I remember going out in his boat during our first trip to Kawau. Unlike all the other sleek white fibreglass yachts in Bon Accord Harbour, Alan’s was a flat-bottomed boat made from iron and painted deep green, and was more akin to a pirate ship. But that was its charm. His racing boat, the Caurus, was also painted the same shade of green. So keen was he on sailing that he endeavoured to give my seven-year-old daughter lessons, fitting her with a life jacket and slotting her into a small yellow dinghy with a green and white sail. Despite his proximity and the encouraging words he issued forth from a small rowing boat, my daughter remained unsure about the whole business and never did take to sailing.
This visit to New Zealand was about a year or so after the release of Rob Roy (1995), a movie set in Scotland starring Liam Neeson and Jessica Lange. Although it was eclipsed in popularity by Braveheart which came out the same year, Rob Roy was critically well-received, Alan’s script being a major element. To coincide with its release a short documentary was produced in which cast and crew discussed the film, including Jessica Lange who talked about how she was attracted to the script and the quality of relationship between Rob Roy MacGregor and his wife Mary. When watching the film I was tickled at being able to hear shades of Alan in many of the lines, something I enjoyed even more in his last major film, Dean Spanley (2008).
Alan originally adapted Lord Dunsany’s novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley, many years before there was any interest in turning it into a movie. When my daughter and I were holidaying at his house in Tighnabruaich in 2006 he phoned to ask me to dig out the 60-page script from his desk and mail it to him in New Zealand. Realising it was the only copy in existence I had a photocopy made before entrusting it to the mail system. That backup script is still with me, somewhere in my boxed-up belongings in England.
In screenplay terms, a page of script is approximately one movie minute, so Alan had to add significantly to Dunsany’s story to end up with a 90-minute feature length script, which he did through the invention of a new character, Horatio Fisk. By introducing Horatio, Alan created a sub-plot so significant that it’s almost impossible to imagine the film without it, as it not only bookends the entire story, but also is woven deftly into both the unfolding and conclusion of the “spine of the narrative”, Henslowe Fisk’s talks with Dean Spanley. As Trevor Johnston, Time Out London film critic, wrote: “… what’s striking is that Sharp has not so much effected an adaptation as a reinvention.”
Two years after I mailed the fledgling script to Alan Dean Spanley was released as a “shaggy dog story” about reincarnation and the relationship between a father and son in Edwardian England. Of all Alan’s films Dean Spanley was perhaps closest to his heart. The story was sweet and the acting sweeter still as it had a small but brilliant cast of actors: Peter O’Toole, Jeremy Northam, Sam Neill, Bryan Brown and Judy Parfitt. And where I could easily imagine Alan speaking some of the Rob Roy lines, his voice is almost palpable throughout Dean Spanley. Henslowe Fisk enquiring after his father by asking Mrs. Brimley, “How’s himself?” and later, “I wouldn’t call it a lie … more like a truth deferred.” Mrs. Brimley, when considering making leek and potato soup (Vichyssoise), comments on how Horatio Fisk calls it a “Vicious Swiss soup”. Wrather, the conveyancer, saying, “It may look like a boat, but it doesn’t float.” And, Horatio Fisk saying, “there is no point to regretting things that have gone to the trouble of happening”.
Over the years I knew Alan I became familiar with some of his more endearing idiosyncrasies, such as his fondness for white shoes from which he’d inevitably remove the shoelaces, being a creature of habit when it came to restaurants and what he ordered, and his willingness to spend time and money keeping his 1967 Oldsmobile on the road. Plus, of course, his insistence on writing not only letters but also scripts in longhand. His surviving wife, Harriet (above), spent much of her time deciphering his handwriting and typing his scripts into Final Draft. From the perspective of being a recipient of his handwritten letters it was always a treat to receive one of Alan’s eight- or ten-page missives.
On Friday 8 February Alan died in Los Angeles after an extended illness, less than a month after turning 79. As my daughter has been living in L.A. for over a year she was able to spend time with him before his death, going on road trips together and generally hanging out. Unfortunately, I didn’t see Alan during the last couple of years of his life, largely because he spent the majority of it undergoing treatment in L.A. There are, as is almost inevitable, numerous things I would’ve liked to have said and talked with him about. Nine years or so ago he commented, “I’d really like to see you with someone who appreciates you.” Although he met my partner, Sean, it was briefly and at the beginning of his illness. Unbeknown to him he had a fast-growing brain tumour that affected his sense of taste and mood, and that evening we all shared dinner in a London restaurant to celebrate my daughter’s twenty-first birthday Alan was not his usual self. Because of this and all that followed I didn’t have the opportunity to tell him that, in Sean, I had finally found someone who appreciates me.
Although we all know death visits each and every one of us, it’s easy to assume there will be time to say such things. But just as we can’t take anything with us when we die, we can’t send a P.S. into the afterlife to clarify something or to reassure those who are no longer with us. So unless Alan gives “a shout from beyond the grave” I’ll assume Dean Spanley’s conjecture is correct, and that Alan’s soul is either preparing for his next life or “busy being whoever [he’s] become.” And if that’s the case, I ought to take heed from Horatio Fisk and stop regretting that which I didn’t go to the trouble of making happen.
Mufidah Kassalias is a writer, photographer and slow traveller. A digital nomad, she’s also co-founder of Creative Thunder, helping creative individuals and small businesses to fire up their online presence and prowess. To get a free copy of the inspiring Creative Thunder Manifesto, click here