Popular Culture Story

Separating fact from fiction in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

  We take a look at one of the biggest films of 2019, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and its portrayal of our founder, Sam Wanamaker

4 minute read

Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) revolves around the declining fortunes of actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio). Dalton might live in the sunshine days of Los Angeles, 1969, but old Hollywood is on the wane, and he finds himself reduced to TV villain-of-the-week roles. We join him on set of the pilot episode of Lancer, a western. As Dalton sits in the make-up trailer, anxiously wondering if this is the job that will finally lift him out of his slump, a middle-aged man with bouffant silver hair bursts in and introduces himself as the director: ‘Sam Wanamaker!’. Those who have been following our Sam Wanamaker Centenary will sit up in their seats. Is it true that Wanamaker directed Lancer? And how accurate is Tarantino’s depiction of him?

Nicholas Hammond as Sam Wanamaker in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, 2019.

To answer the first question: yes, Wanamaker directed the pilot of Lancer. However, this was some months earlier than is shown in Once Upon a Time (his episode The High Riders first aired on 24 September 1968). According to Diana Devlin’s 2019 biography Sam Wanamaker: A Global Performer, he also directed cop show Hawk (starring a young Burt Reynolds) and TV westerns Custer, Cimarron Strip, and Dundee and the Culhane. This might sound like he was working, as it were, as a gun for hire – but Nicholas Hammond’s performance as Wanamaker in Once Upon a Time suggests quite the opposite. Hammond’s Wanamaker fires ideas at Dalton with the energy of a lightning bolt. ‘I want a zeitgeist flare in the costumes!’ he cries. ‘I want to give him a moustache, a big, droopy, Zapata-like moustache. […] I want to give him a hippie jacket. Something he could wear into the London Fog tonight and look like the hippest guy in the room.’ (Incidentally, ‘the London Fog’ is not a comment on Wanamaker’s English sojourn, but rather a club on Sunset Strip.)

Does this reflect the real Wanamaker? Surprisingly, it’s not too far from reality. As Devlin puts it, ‘In working on pilots […] Sam was able to have his cake and eat it.’ The pilots he directed, she writes, benefitted from his drive and artistic commitment, ‘but they did not tie him down’. She also quotes Wanamaker enthusing about westerns: ‘We all like to do things we can’t do – punch the villain, shoot the enemy out of his saddle at 100 yards, be quick on the draw, swagger down Main Street. Like Greek drama, the western expresses the elemental nature of man.’

‘We all like to do things we can’t do – punch the villain, shoot the enemy out of his saddle at 100 yards, be quick on the draw, swagger down Main Street.’

Sam Wanamaker and a model of Shakespeare’s Globe. Photographer: Brian Rybolt.

In deleted material from Once Upon a Time, Wanamaker expresses similarly positive sentiments about the dramatic value of the western genre – here, however, the comparison is not with Greek tragedy, but with Shakespeare. ‘You’d be amazed [in] how many westerns the plot is Shakespearean’, Wanamaker tells Dalton. ‘Whenever there is that struggle for power, of who’s going to be the leader, that is pure Shakespeare’. He tries to persuade a reluctant Dalton to play ‘Edgar’ (though Wanamaker’s description better fits Edmund) in King Lear, and mentions a previous stage appearance in the play with Laurence Olivier. There’s a grain of truth here: Olivier played Lear in 1946 with the Old Vic Company in London and Paris, although as a recently-demobbed young actor in New York, Wanamaker was not involved.

Still, the scene is a nice nod to Wanamaker’s later work on the reconstruction of the Globe and, indeed, an in-joke about casting of which Shakespeare himself might have approved. For all that Dalton appears baffled and sceptical at the prospect of Shakespeare, a highlight of DiCaprio’s early career was his appearance in Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film of Romeo + Juliet.

Claire Danes as Juliet and Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo + Juliet, 1996.

Will Tarantino one day direct a Shakespeare film? Macbeth and Titus Andronicus spring to mind as options. Then again, it’s possible to see Once Upon a Time as his version of a Shakespearean history play. It takes real events and people and blends them with fictional characters to construct a compelling narrative of things that happened, might have happened, and definitely didn’t happen. It’s also, in some small way, a playful and unexpectedly touching tribute to the founder of Shakespeare’s Globe in his centenary year.