The Unknown Power Couple Behind Hollywood’s Greatest Hits
When Lillian Michelson met her future husband in 1947, she would talk to him about equal rights for women — an unorthodox dating topic for the time. “His mother was very traditional,” she says, “She irritated me. I just wanted him to know there were some females who weren’t like his mom!”
She and Harold, who died in 2007, had one of Hollywood’s most enduring partnerships, as seen in the documentary “Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story,” out Friday. He was a storyboard artist, sketching iconic scenes for “The Graduate,” “The Birds” and many more, while Lillian found renown as a film researcher, giving depth and realism to a million little details on-screen. She retired in 2010 at 82. Now 88, she spoke to The Post from the Motion Picture retirement home in Los Angeles, where she lives, about a few favorite movie industry memories.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
I researched witchcraft and voodoo seances in Salem, England, West Africa and Brazil. It was fascinating! In the film, it informed the seances that were in the other apartment, the fact that the herbs were given to Rosemary, and that the [Satanists] tried to oversee her entire life and development.
I called all the legal agencies — the FBI, CIA, DEA, ATF — and they didn’t help me. Then I started looking at my Rolodex — that’s an heirloom! — and called some friends. One of them referred me to his brother, who had retired from the cocaine business. I called him up, and we had a fine conversation. For weeks he would call me, from various pay phones, and answer every question I had. One day he said, “Why don’t I just fly you down [to South America] in one of my jets? Just tell me which country you wanna go to.” The light went on for me — you don’t keep jets unless you still have your thumb in this business. I came home and told my husband. Harold had an angel’s disposition, but he exploded. “Did you forget you have a husband and children? And you’re going to go down there and risk all that?” So I didn’t go. Then one day [the man] told me, “I wrote the definitive book on how to make cocaine, and it has pictures of my labs in Ecuador and Brazil.” I tried to keep control of my voice (I squeak something awful when I get excited) and I said, “I would love a copy.” So he mailed me this book in a plain brown wrapper, and I called him and said, “You just saved my hide! I’m just sorry I can’t suggest that you get technical advisor credits.”
Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
I was desperate to find orthodox Jewish girls’ underwear! In costume books they rarely go into underwear. So there’s this Jewish section [in Los Angeles] where old ladies congregate on the benches. Nobody ever pays attention to them, they are the most invisible group of people I’ve ever encountered. I went and asked them. One lady said, “I live right around the corner! I have a pair of scissors and I’m going to go cut out a pattern and bring it to you!” I was so hopped up with enthusiasm. She comes back with this full-size pattern of bloomers with these lovely scallops on the bottom — it never occurred to me that they would be allowed to have ornamentation there. I got in my car and drove back and showed them and they said, “Where did you find that?” Wherever those women are, I thank them.
Rain Man (1988)
Working on “Rain Main” was extremely therapeutic. My autistic son Alan is not a savant — he has an I.Q. of 142 which is pretty good, but he certainly was no genius the way Dustin Hoffman’s character was. There are very few autistic savants. So the picture wasn’t realistic in that way. But Barry Levinson did know our family, and he wanted Alan to be the prototype that Dustin Hoffman would follow around for a year studying his habits and his way of walking. I felt I couldn’t give up Alan’s privacy, so I found six other very smart autistic boys and Dustin followed one of those young men around for a year. He really does his research. With the no eye contact and the flapping of the hands, the mechanical voice, the rituals that have to be observed or they have a meltdown — he got it all, he really did.
All the American Film Institute fellows — you weren’t supposed to call them students — would come into my office, and David Lynch was one. He was such a beautifully mannered, Midwestern young man. He reminded me of the way Elvis Presley was talked about: gentlemanly. He turned out to be the only one of the 21 fellows who always returned books in the right spot!
Francis Ford Coppola
Every Friday night he would give a party for everybody at his studio. The idea of making us a family was very important to him. He was a wonderful … I guess you would call him a patriarch. When he bought a winery in Napa, he had us all up there stomping grapes in these great big barrels. He had this Pied Piper quality about him — the little kids all followed him around.
Shrek 2 (2004)
The movie had been shown to the cast and crew of DreamWorks, and the
next day everybody piled into my office and said, “You’re named king and
queen!” I didn’t believe them, so I called the director. He said, “We
wanted to make you and Harold immortal. This is the only way we could
think of.” There was another showing and when [King Harold and Queen
Lillian] came on-screen, Harold and I were holding hands and just
chortling away. We couldn’t believe it. What a tremendous surprise — you
go into your middle years and you’re just doing your work as best you
can and you don’t think anybody is noticing. And somebody noticed.