He was so afraid of germs he wouldn’t touch anything unless it was wrapped in a tissue. He grew his fingernails two inches long. He would lie around for weeks in his undershorts in dark hotel rooms watching one movie after another. And when he died at 70 on April 5, 1976, the 6’1” tall, barely 90-pound Howard Hughes was thought to be the richest man in America.
And maybe the most absentminded, because the oil heir neglected to leave a will that would tell the world what to do with his vast fortune, then valued officially at $169 million. Sixteen years ago this week, the nation watched as the inevitable battle over his fortune was played out on TV and in headlines; more than 40 claims and 22 heirs later, some assets are still tied up in court.
America’s millionaire crank extraordinaire, Hughes made many contributions to pop culture. A dabbler in filmmaking, he produced Scarface (1932) and ran RKO Pictures from 1948 to ’53. His dating book included Katharine Hepburn, Olivia de Havilland, and Ida Lupino. His crowning cinematic achievement was inventing a brassiere that maneuvered the 38-inch bust of his protégée, Jane Russell, to maximum camera-angle advantage in The Outlaw (1943).
But Hughes’ death was his oddest legacy, inspiring one of the best movies about Americana ever made, Melvin and Howard (1980). Featuring Jason Robards as Howard, the film told the largely true tale of Melvin Dummar (played by Paul LeMat), a Utah gas-station attendant and onetime milkman who allegedly befriended Hughes on a highway outside Vegas one night and, for his kindness, was named a beneficiary in the ”Mormon Will,” found in the Mormon Church headquarters in Salt Lake City after Hughes’ death. A low-budget cult film, Melvin and Howard won two Oscars, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress (Mary Steenburgen), and set the career of director Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs) on track.
The real Dummar, now 48, didn’t fare as well. The Mormon Will was ruled a fake in 1978 and he returned to pumping gas, then drifted from job to job, including managing Dummar’s Cafe in Gabbs, Nev., owned by his brother, Ray. Melvin now lives in Clearfield, Utah, with his wife, Bonnie, and works in a dairy.
May 22, 1976
People couldn’t get enough of ”Silly Love Songs,” Wings’ chart topper. And while Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford were taking on Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s All the President’s Men in Hollywood, Woodward and Bernstein’s The Final Days was a must-read.