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Earthling, The

Earthling, The(1981)

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teaser Earthling, The (1981)

In The Earthling (1980) screen legend William Holden plays Patrick Foley, a dying man who travels to Australia in order to live out his final days at the remote farm deep in the outback where he spent his boyhood. His trek to the farm is interrupted when a little boy named Shawn (Ricky Schroder) is suddenly orphaned when his parents die in a freak accident. The two strangers become unlikely companions as the gruff Patrick, who has little time left, reluctantly takes Shawn under his wing to teach him how to survive on his own in the unforgiving wilderness. Shot on location against the vivid scenery of the Australian outback, The Earthling was Holden's second to last film before his untimely death in 1981, and it makes a fitting swan song for the Academy Award-winning actor.

When William Holden first read the script for The Earthling, he immediately responded to it. According to his longtime girlfriend at the time, actress Stefanie Powers, "...he saw it as a message he identified with and very much appreciated." Holden had worked steadily through the decades ever since he first burst onto the big screen opposite Barbara Stanwyck in 1939's Golden Boy. He had recently scored his third (and final) Best Actor Oscar nomination for his work in the classic 1976 satire Network and was eager for another box office hit.

While Holden's immense talent as an actor was not in dispute, he was locked in an ongoing battle with his most formidable enemy: alcohol. He had joined Alcoholics Anonymous in a concerted effort to help control his frequent stumbles off the wagon, but girlfriend Powers feared that it would be difficult for Holden to maintain his sobriety while on location for The Earthling. "...the timing was not good as far as AA was concerned," she said in her 2010 memoir One From the Hart. "Filming would take place far into the outback of Australia, away from proximity to anything that remotely resembled an AA meeting, and Bill was still in a fragile state. He was given self-help tapes by his AA sponsor to support his sobriety, and against all odds, off Bill went across the Pacific."

Holden also worried about working with the film's director, Peter Collinson. Collinson (The Italian Job 1969) had a reputation for being a foul-tempered taskmaster on set, and Holden readied himself for a potentially difficult experience.

Holden did, however, look forward to working with co-star Ricky Schroder. Schroder had impressed everyone with his high profile film debut in Franco Zeffirelli's tearjerking 1979 remake of The Champ opposite Jon Voight. Young Schroder's star was on the rise, but he had remained refreshingly unaffected. According to Bob Thomas' 1983 William Holden biography Golden Boy, Holden found Schroder to be "bright and cheerful, with no trace of the precocity of most child actors."

As shooting commenced on location in Australia, Holden successfully maintained his sobriety and did so throughout the entire production. He and Schroder formed a warm bond and built a lasting friendship through working together. Holden regaled Schroder with stories from his life and career and spent time with him off camera playing pool, organizing frog jumping contests, roasting marshmallows, hunting and exploring the vast landscape. "It fostered a love for the outdoors and the need to protect it," recalled Schroder in a 1993 interview.

The relationship between director Peter Collinson and the cast, however, was strained. As William Holden had feared, Collinson's reputation as a tyrant on set soon proved to be well founded. By all accounts Collinson was often difficult and bullying, bringing a negative energy that permeated the set. He lost his temper often with the crew and mercilessly taunted Ricky Schroder. According to author Bob Thomas, one day when Schroder was having trouble with how he was being directed in a particular scene, Collinson let him have it. "What do you know, little boy?" yelled Collinson. "You're not a good actor. You'll never be a good actor. Today you're doing everything wrong. You're impossible!"

Holden intervened on his young co-star's behalf and took Collinson aside. "You're not going to get a performance out of the kid by browbeating him," he said. "Now there are two different ways to do this scene: your way and the way Ricky wants to do it. Why don't you shoot it both ways and decide later which is better?"

The cast as well as the Filmways production company were also unhappy with Collinson's darker approach to the script than was originally intended. According to author Bob Thomas, Holden argued that Collinson's direction was bringing far too much pessimism to the story. "It should be joyful," said Holden at the time, "a celebration of life, a culmination of manhood. Sure, the man is dying, but even dying can be a positive experience. When a man passes on that part of life which is necessary for a boy's survival--morals, integrity, vulnerability--it is a gift of life, a joyful gift."

Holden and producer Elliot Schick began to have whispered conversations about having Collinson replaced on the film. In the end, however, they decided it wouldn't be worth it. "Forget it," said Holden. "No director worth his salt is going to fly down here to direct half a picture. We'll just have to stick it out."

If it seemed that Collinson's bitterness was particularly pointed while making The Earthling, there was a reason: he was dying himself. Like Holden's character in the film, Collinson had recently discovered that he was suffering from terminal cancer. This awareness of his own imminent fate seemed to bring an unsentimental toughness to the material, though no one else on the film was aware of his illness until later. Collinson passed away on December 16, 1980 at the age of 44 just before the film opened in the U.S.

When shooting finally wrapped on The Earthling and Filmways got a look at the footage, executives were worried that the film was too pessimistic and would not work. Fearing that they were facing potential big losses on the $4 million film, Filmways and the film's producers decided to do everything they could to salvage it. Executives tapped John Strong, a former actor turned "film doctor", for the job. Strong had worked on the pre-production side of The Earthling, but had exited the project when filming began. After taking a look at the existing footage, Strong decided to make some drastic changes. He did a major re-edit, re-cast some smaller roles, and shot a new ending in Hollywood. A new musical score was recorded and a new song called "Halfway Home" was added to the end credits sung by Maureen McGovern, the recording artist whose voice was already behind two popular Academy Award winning film songs: "The Morning After" from The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and "We May Never Love Like This Again" from The Towering Inferno (1974). When all was said and done, Strong had used more than $60,000 of his own money to get the film back on track.

Despite the Herculean efforts to do major surgery on The Earthling, Filmways was still unhappy with the final result and failed to put much effort into promoting its theatrical release. To everyone's disappointment, the film received mixed reviews, and even the combined star power of William Holden and Ricky Schroder was not enough to make it a box office hit.

The Earthling found its audience when it became a staple on cable television during the early 1980s. Its many loyal fans responded to Holden's gripping performance, the touching coming of age story, and the stunning outback scenery. Another positive result that came out of the film was that William Holden and Ricky Schroder formed a strong bond that lasted until Holden's death in 1981, a little over a year after the film's release. In fact, Holden's influence on Schroder was such that when his first child--a son--was born in 1992, he named him Holden in honor of his beloved late co-star and mentor.

by Andrea Passafiume

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