Director Irving Rapper died just a few weeks short of his 102nd birthday in 1999, but when I interviewed him for The New York Times in 1977, he was sharp and spry, eager to begin work on “Born Again,” a movie which opened and quickly vanished the following year. I admired Rapper because he was unpretentious and because he managed to gracefully survive directing Bette Davis in not just one film, but four. --GUY FLATLEY








“We’ll be shooting around the White House – if the cops aren’t watching,” said Irving Rapper, sounding for a second like a crazed conspirator. The security of the nation is not in peril, however; the secretive shooting being plotted is merely the shooting of a movie, the first to be directed by Mr. Rapper since “The Christine Jorgensen Story” seven years ago. And, once again, the seasoned moviemaker has turned to real life for his inspiration – to the story of Charles Colson, the former Special Advisor to President Nixon who went to prison in the Daniel Ellsberg case and who later wrote of his own spiritual redemption in a book called “Born Again.”

The birth of the movie – adapted by Walter Bloch and produced by Robert Munger – is due to take place next month in Washington, with Dean Jones – a brawny, fumbling denizen of such Walt Disney frolics as “That Darn Cat,” “The Monkey’s Uncle” and “The Love Bug” – playing the celebrated penitent.

“I was completely prepared to dislike Colson, because of the brutal things I read he had done in the Oval Office,” said Mr. Rapper, a veteran who steered Bette Davis through the sobs and suds of such weepies of the 40’s as “Now, Voyager,” “The Corn Is Green” and “Deception,” and a heavy-breathing 1952 thriller called "Another Man's Poison." “But he turned out to be a very modest, considerate man who had been put through hell. At the time of Watergate, he had no one to turn to. The President, it seemed, was about to be impeached, and John Mitchell was indicted. In his despair, he turned to Tom Phillips and to Billy Graham, who impressed him with their Christianity and evangelism. Because of their influence, he devoted himself to rehabilitating his fellow prisoners through prayer.”

Not that prison was ever any church picnic, particularly in the beginning. “Colson told me that on the first night he was afraid to go to bed, that people were stomping on one another, that knives were flashing from nowhere and searchlights were suddenly shining in his face. But he survived, and became a stronger person. Today, he heads up fellowship prayer meetings with his old adversary, Harold Hughes, the retired Senator from Iowa. And – get this – Hughes is going to play himself in the movie.”

More exciting, perhaps, to movie buffs is the casting of Dana Andrews as the idealistic Tom Phillips, Anne Francis as Mr. Colson’s wife, Raymond St. Jacques as a saintly prisoner, Scott Brady as a hot-tempered foe, and George Brent as an unyielding judge. “George said he would never return to Hollywood, but when I discovered him out in Oceanside, I said, ‘Look here, George, I’m not asking you to play this role, I’m telling you to.’”

Mr. Brent doubly delighted Mr. Rapper by shedding light on the mystery of who really deserves credit for the scene in “Now, Voyager” in which a dreamy-eyed Paul Henreid simultaneously lights two cigarettes and then suavely hands one to an incredulous, enchanted Bette Davis. Mr. Henreid astonished many in the audience at the American Film Institute’s tribute to Bette Davis by claiming to have invented that tricky business all by himself. “George reminded me that in ‘The Rich Are Always With Us,’ a film he did with Ruth Chatterton in 1932, the director, Al Green, had him light two cigarettes and give one to Ruth. Everyone knows that cigarette scene came from the original story of ‘Now Voyager.’”

Mr. Rapper’s admiration for the female lead in “Now, Voyager” remains undiminished, although moviemaking with Bette Davis frequently proved a bumpy voyage. “She was a powerful actress, and a powerful dame. We had our differences, but they were always settled without interference from the front office. I think they were afraid of her. Bette is the first to admit that she is mercurial; I never knew from day to day what to expect. I remember escorting her to a concert where there were to be a number of the greatest Hollywood directors in attendance. I said, ‘Bette, I’m nervous about mixing with all those guys,’ and she said, ‘Irving Rapper, if I didn’t think you were better than every one of them, do you think I would be with you in this car right now?’ And then, the next day, she would say, ‘Irving? Irving who?’”