Scene 182: Los Angeles, 1947, Frank Sinatra, dead drunk, stalks through Romanoff’s restaurant, incongruously clad in priest’s robes. He makes a crass bless-you-my-children gesture to the room, then joins his pre-Rat Pack pals: manager Hank Sanicola, Humphrey Bogart, composer Jimmy Van Heusen. Out spews the bitter, plaintive sound of show-biz misery. His career lies in ruins; his marriage to Nancy, destroyed by his own philandering, is all but over; and damn it, won’t anybody drink with him?
Tina Sinatra stands in a corner of the set, pale and clenched, watching her ”father” behave like a monster until she can’t stand it anymore.
”Hold it, hold it, stop!” she shouts, striding into the middle of the scene. Director James Sadwith turns to her. Philip Casnoff, the actor playing Frank Sinatra, looks up, then walks away quietly, lighting a cigarette. And Sinatra, the five-hour miniseries that will air Nov. 8 and 10 on CBS, hangs motionless in the air while Sadwith and Tina confer in low, dark, I-will-not-scream-in-front-of-all-these-people tones.
Five weeks into filming, the atmosphere on Sinatra is grim, and not just because of the chugging smoke machine that bilge-pumps clouds of faux cigarette haze onto the set. In the seven years since CBS commissioned what was to be a 10-hour miniseries from Warner Bros. Television based on Sinatra’s life, the network has grappled, often fiercely, with Tina Sinatra, the film’s executive producer, and, at 44, the youngest of Sinatra’s three children. At stake: the guardianship of her father’s image, which ranges from Saint Francis to mob thug, depending on who’s talking. ”None of us in the bloodline thought anyone else could do it,” she says. ”Who’s better than someone in the family? And besides, nobody else could have gotten the music rights.”
After the publication of Kitty Kelley’s demonography His Way in 1986, CBS pressured Tina to add more dirt. She refused. Sinatra (which cost an astronomical-for-TV $18.5 million) gained a reputation for chewing up and spitting out writers. Eventually things got so bad that CBS scrapped the idea completely. When the network revived the project, it was with the mandate that Sinatra would have to be 5 hours rather than 10 and, as a stagehand puts it, ”brutally Frank.” And so Sinatra depicts one of the century’s most influential singers as a cheating husband and neglectful father who hangs out with the likes of mobster Sam Giancana, stares into the bottom of more than a few liquor bottles, and, at one crisis point, attempts suicide. Even his own mother calls him a son of a bitch.
That’s all fine with Tina. But on this day, with Warner Bros. breathing down her neck about budget overruns, the strain of staging her father’s loutish behavior destroys her composure. Hours after the blowup is resolved (the scene proceeds with only minor changes), she finds an empty room and sits down. Exhaustedly, she pulls off the headset that gives her the appearance of an air-traffic controller facing rough skies.
”Were you there when I was screaming?” she asks, her voice vise-tight. ”That was not about protecting Frank’s image.” (Sometimes he’s Dad, sometimes Frank.) ”That had to do with the way the scene was blocked. I try to give Jim (Sadwith) his space, but for some reason I went completely ballistic.”
She adds that her outburst was uncharacteristic. (”That was one of the two hardest days of the shoot,” Sadwith confirms. ”If every day had gone that way, I’d be in the hospital.”) But Tina Sinatra admits that turning her father’s life into the stuff of TV drama has not been pleasant. Although Sinatra himself gave his approval to the idea of a TV biography, he did not control the film’s content. ”Even reading the script was difficult for Dad,” Tina says. ”I know because he told my mother (the former Nancy Barbato, divorced from Sinatra in 1951). But he’s the one who said warts and all, so…”
Warts, and there are plenty, may explain why Sinatra himself, now 76 and disinclined toward public displays of introspection, did not visit the set. ”My mother came to see the shoot yesterday,” says Tina. ”It was her 75th birthday. And she was very nice, telling interviewers that it was easy for her to watch this. But later I said, ‘Mom, what do you really wish?’ And she said, ‘That it was over.’ I’m sure Frank feels that way too. I must say, I’m glad my mother isn’t here today. Suddenly, it’s all very emotional.”
”It’s a difficult show,” says producer Richard Rosenbloom. ”Long days. Nerves get frayed.”
When Tina returns to the set, cooler, she offers a few words of reassurance to the calm, muted man at the center of the storm: Philip Casnoff, 38, a New York stage performer (Chess, Shogun) who was an 11th-hour choice to play the lead. His audition tape reached Tina Sinatra and Sadwith after 250 actors had been rejected. ”I went to Dad and said, ‘I can’t find anyone with the essence of the street who could aspire to your social polish,”’ says Tina. ”And he said, ‘Then find someone who has the polish, and rough him down.”’ She and Sadwith knew that Casnoff, a Broadway singer, would be able to lip-synch the two dozen Sinatra recordings heard in the miniseries (available on CD), and they felt he had the acting heft to portray Sinatra’s confidence, rancor, and swagger over 40 years. Moreover, retrofitted with blue contact lenses and mini-toupees that chart the flow and ebb of Sinatra’s hairline, Casnoff makes an often striking look-alike. ”Philip is in a difficult position,” Tina Sinatra understates. ”There are so many eyes on him.”
”Sure, there was some tension,” says Casnoff after production is completed. ”The depressing scenes were tough at times. I’d do something she wasn’t crazy about, and I’d stick to my guns — and so would she. She’d say, ‘Dad wouldn’t get angry in this scene,’ and I’d say, ‘Well, you don’t know, ’cause you weren’t even born yet!’ Ridiculous conversations! But at other times she’d bring up things that were very useful. The way he walked. The way he’d say a word. The way he’d hold his head.”
Casnoff did his own research as well, studying Sinatra’s vocal rhythms and steeping himself in his old, not-great movies. ”I had to let them wash over me,” he says. ”Sinatra wasn’t an icon to me. He was a hero to my father’s generation. I’d thought of him as just this cool guy — the Rat Pack guy — from being a kid and watching Ocean’s Eleven. What surprised me was all the sadness that crept into his life. It’s a classic showbiz story — your life is falling apart, and you sing. Only on stage was he open and available emotionally.”
So perhaps it’s in character that Sinatra chose to be out touring during the filming; after allowing himself to be interviewed by various screenwriters, he remained remote, meeting Casnoff only for an awkward, well-wishing handshake. ”It was strange,” says Casnoff. ”He was very nice, but I understand that to really get to know him, you have to sit down and have a drink or two with him.”
As Sinatra‘s premiere approaches, rumors have been heard that the Chairman of the Board is less than overjoyed at CBS’ depiction of him. But from Sinatra himself there is only silence. ”He has the videotape,” says Casnoff. ”But he hasn’t seen it yet. I do hope I’ll get to talk to him one day,” he adds. ”I guess that’ll all depend on what he thinks.”
”He’s such a private man,” says Tina. ”And this is all so public. My father will never write a book, so this is it — this is his life. And right now, Dad is experiencing the expression ‘Be careful what you wish for — you may get it.”’