Sunday, October 9, 2011

Mark Frechette, actor, cult member

With Daria Halprin 
Presque Vu
Never heard of him?  Don't let it bother you. He was never really that famous, and if he ever was, it was for a brief moment in the very early 70s. He was never part of the glamour of Hollywood, but a footnote to an idealistic, but misguided, era. He is exactly the kind of character I like. He was a might-have-been that never was, and maybe, really, never should have been in the first place. He would still be alive had he not taken his convictions to the Quixotic heights that he did.

Not the greatest actor (his first starring role was a decidedly wooden effort) or bank robber (he was convicted in 1973), he nevertheless holds a fascination for me.

This erstwhile French Canadian bad boy could well be called a victim of the Hollywood fame machine, but he took the opportunity given and used Hollywood for his own ends as well. Of course the trade-off was less than equal (it always is concerning Hollywood), but he left enough of a smear on the life of social commentary for me not to forget him.

I first came across Zabriskie Point in the early 1980s. Where I grew up we only had three TV channels, and one of them was French. There was a program on French CBC called Beau Dimanche, or Beautiful Sunday. It was there, in English with French subtitles, that I saw Frechette. Beau Dimanche could be at times racy, being French, and there was always the chance I could see some male frontal nudity, something a budding gay boy is forever in the mood for. Zabriskie Point, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, was suppose to be a comment on modern America, laying bare the angst and ennui of the young American counter-culture. The director had scored a hit in 1966 with Blow Up. Zabriskie Point, though, ended up being an indulgent and derivative expose of how Hollywood money pandered to the youth culture of the time. In it, Frechette plays 'Mark', a constantly mopey and disaffected young man trying to do the right thing, and at the same time, doing his best to stick it to The Man. He is sought by the police in a shooting incident, but whether or not he actually fired the gun is not clear in the film. There are a lot of things in the movie that are not clear, and even to my teenage critic, (the person who I was at that time), the film was quite ridiculous.
Déjà Vu

Regardless, Frechette was in it, and I was transfixed by his handsome face. Whether life imitates Art, or it is the other way around, Frechette's life after Hollywood was a strange experience in Déjà vu.  It is almost as if, in taking the role, he fulfilled it as a true character not in the movie itself, but in real life. He went on to make a few European films, one of them called Uomini Contro, in 1971. It is quite a good anti-war film, in which he looks smashing in period costume - and acts reasonably well - even if his voice is clearly dubbed.

He was discovered for his role as a star in Zabriskie Point on Charles street in Boston by Sally Dennison, Antonioni's Assistant Casting Director. He was apparently bearded and yelling 'mother fucker' in an altercation at a bus stop, and that was enough for Dennsion to push him to the head of the short list. No doubt his handsome face under the beard and his attitude went a long way for her. "He's 20 and he hates," was the oft quoted reason for his casting.

The movie was greeted with howls and labelled a bomb, the two leads, Halprin and Frechette, were called blank and flat in their portrayals - no arguments there. The script is also awful, full of counter-culture buzz words and silly student debate. Even before the movie was released, it had been picketed for its anti-Americanism by right wing groups. Antonioni was an avowed leftist, and had inserted an ending with Frechette sky writing 'Fuck you America' with his stolen plane. It was cut by the censor board and does not appear in the final edit. The FBI was tailing the cast and crew.  It really was one of the artistic nadirs of Flower Power.

Frechette received about $60,000 for his work, which he gave to Mel Lyman, a pre-Manson cult figure in the Boston area. Frechette had been trying to enter the cult for some time.  It was his money that opened the door. There is a Dick Cavett talk show clip on YouTube that features Frechette and Halprin. At the time, they were obviously in the thrall of Lyman. The Lyman community was characterized as a cult that 'did not kill people', in reference to the famous nights of Charlie Manson's carnage in '69 - although by all accounts Lyman was clearly off the rails. He was a folk musician turned 'God', in his own words. The Lyman trust actually survives as a construction company, the beginnings of which were the creation of the community and restoration of part of a ramshackle set of buildings in a Boston neighbourhood called Fort Hill. With Frechette's rise to fame he was allowed to enter into it. Previously, while on the set of Zabriskie Point, he constantly left copies of Avatar, Lyman's God fanzine, at Antonioni's trailer door.

After Zabriskie Point, Uomini Contro and other smaller European film work, he ended up at Fort Hill in the Lyman cult at loose ends. On August 29th, 1973, in what Frechette called an 'inevitable' incident, he and two other Fort Hill members staged a robbery of the New England Merchant's Bank. He later said that the robbery was a culmination of his feelings about society at the time and was a perfect response. He noted, succinctly,  that bank funds are insured - and the bank would be reimbursed - so no one was the real loser. No one, except for one of his accomplices, that is.  Frechette's gun was not loaded and was thrown down as the robbery unraveled, but 'Hercules' Thein, one of the three, was shot dead in front of Frechette. Frechette and Sheldon 'Terry' Bernhard were convicted of armed robbery and sent away for up to 15 years.

Jamais Vu
It was in prison, a few years later, and in a deep depression over the death of Thein, that Frechette was found with a barbell resting on his neck, having died of suffocation in the prison gym. It was a strange death, but there was no sign of a struggle and so his life was easily brushed aside by the authorities. He had not been eating and had lost weight. He was pressing about 70 kg, but was weak and the barbell slipped. He was 27 years old. When the robbery had put his name back in the papers (he had virtually disappeared inside the Lyman compound), he told the press, "I just do what I have to do, because if you fall asleep like most people in this society, you're a fuckin' dead man..."

In finding out more and more about this young, tragic, and forgotten fellow, I was greatly helped with information by a few articles from the Boston Phoenix and Rolling Stone Magazine, written by Dave O'Brian. Trawling the internet, you can find small bits of information.  As well, I recall a book by Michael Medved, which I have since misplaced, called The Golden Turkey Awards. I stumbled across it and bought it shortly after seeing Zabriskie Point on CBC. In it was my first taste, hilariously sent up by Medved, of the over-blown self-importance and vacuity in the making of what has eventually become a cult classic.


Nicco said...

Wow!This is quite something!

I bet you gave him bigger and better homage than all the film encyclopedias.

Thanks for sharing.

bob said...

I don't remember this guy at all. He reminds me of Peter Fonda in a vague kind of way.

It's a shame, he had a lot going for him with more of an advantage than any of us will ever have. In spite of that, he blew it.

The cult thing is interesting, although I don't remember hearing about this one in particular. These people constantly looking for salvation and a sense of belonging kill me. It makes me think of the movie OH GOD with George Burns. The most meaningful line in the whole movie is when God [George Burns] is venting to John Denver about all the prayers and requests for "the answer". He then says,"…do you want to know what the answer is, kid? THE ANSWER IS 'THERE IS NO ANSWER'…"

Starched Collar said...

Glad to be a little enlightening, bob! The Lyman cult was not famous, I suppose because Manson became the archetype for that social experiment.

Handsome, with advantages. For an older man like me, his political convictions were a bit breathtaking, but he 'owned' them, as they say.

You can find God in simple things, I think. We'll all meet Him soon enough. Why the rush?

Thanks for your comment!

Starched Collar said...

Nicco, he certainly was a footnote, poor fellow. I hope you are right, I wanted to do him a little justice. I tried to be as scholarly with my facts as I was entertaining in my writing.

Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Great little essay on an interesting fellow! I see the attraction, the mop of hair, furry chest + all the fascinating behind the scene details. His face is not unfamiliar - like you probably first seen on cbc french. gp

Starched Collar said...

Yes, gp - a terrible film, but a face I couldn't forget. And to find he was French Canadian! I can see it in the sharp jaw & dark features...

John said...

Interesting story of a wasted life. Like Bob, I had never heard of him or the Lyman cult.

I think that I would have made better use of so handsome a face, had I been blessed in that fashion. Or did his good looks give him too MUCH confidence -- as in failing to realize that robbing a bank was Not a Good Idea?

He almost reminds me of a male version of Madame Bovary. He had dreams of doing exciting things, but the execution wasn't what he had planned. Sin isn't as successful in real life as it may appear in the movies.

Starched Collar said...

John! I apologize for missing your comment (bad moderator, bad!). You have said it, cogently, sin is a great literary foil, but when faced with it in real life, the complications are in the least, profoundly heartbreaking sometimes. Unlike perfection, there are, thankfully, degrees of sin. I am sorry I missed your comment..!

Arch said...

If you seen his third film La Grande Scrofa Nera (fairly obscure these days, saw it in a cinema in Venice) you'll see a fantastic performance by him, his acting got so much better. 27 is so young to go.

Starched Collar said...

Wow! Arch, I've never heard of the film! I know he took off to Europe and did some stuff in Italy, but this title has eluded me! Thank you very much!