“In the Company of Legends” – Exclusive Interview with Authors Joan Kramer and David Heeley


“In the Company of Legends” in stores April 16
Exclusive Interview with authors Joan Kramer and David Heeley

Starting with their award winning profiles of Fred Astaire in 1980, Joan Kramer and David Heeley documented the lives and careers of some of Hollywood’s greatest legends, establishing a reputation for finding the un-findable, persuading the reluctant, and maintaining unique relationships with the stars long after the end credits rolled.  And now, for the first time, we can read all about their extraordinary experiences in their new book, In the Company of Legends — which will be available in stores next Tuesday, April 16.  But that’s not all — CMH is happy to say that Joan and David have honored us with an exclusive interview about their book!

I do want to add here, that I found this book absolutely captivating and entertaining, a truly enjoyable read. It’s a treasure trove of play-by-plays and behind-the scene stories that give us great insight into these powerful, yet very human, Hollywood legends.

A big Thank You to Joan and David for taking the time to do this interview — and to Beaufort Books for supplying CMH with some wonderful behind-the-scenes photos to use in this blog post.

In the Company of Legends by Joan Kramer and David Heeley


Before we start our interview, I just want to mention that Joan and David will be co-hosting a night of programming on TCM with Robert Osborne tomorrow night (April 7) starting at 8PM EST.  They’ll be showing five of their documentaries: James Stewart: A Wonderful Life (1987) at 8PM,  The Spencer Tracy Legacy: A Tribute by Katharine Hepburn (1986) at 9:45PM, Fonda on Fonda (1992) at 11:30PM, Katharine Hepburn: All About Me (1993) at 12:30AM (April 8) and Bacall on Bogart (1988) at 2AM (April 8).

And now, for the interview…

classic movie documentary film makers joan kramer and david heeleyDocumentary film-makers and, now authors, David Heeley and Joan Kramer

“As with so many events in life, our meeting each other was a matter of chance. The fact that we then began working together was the luck of the draw”

CMH: Can you share with our readers a little bit about your respective backgrounds and how you ‘chanced’ to work together?

David: We have very different backgrounds. I’m from the north of England, had an education that veered towards the sciences (my degree from Oxford is in Physics) and started my career at the BBC in London, where I was a director.

Joan: I was born and raised in Chicago and was a ballet dancer and assistant choreographer before beginning my television production career as an associate producer for The Dick Cavett Show on ABC. In the late 1970s WNET was producing a weekly show about the arts in New York called Skyline. David and I were assigned to each other for one of the shows, and it went on from there.

CMH: Your initial work together was in the local programming arena. What was it about the dynamics of your relationship that set the stage for bigger things to come?

David: We discovered that we each have different strengths. And for the most part those strengths complement each other. That doesn’t mean that we never disagree, in fact we often argue. But that is healthy, and can stop us moving in the wrong direction.

Joan: I’m a phone person and was the one who usually made the first contact with celebrities. David is more technically-inclined, which I’m not at all.


 Fred Astaire's top hat

“Mr. Astaire is furious!”

CMH:  Together, you’ve been able to document the lives and careers of some of Hollywood’s greatest movie stars — and, in the process, you’ve established a reputation for finding the unfindable and persuading the reluctant.  Your first two profiles of Fred Astaire, “Puttin’ on His Top Hat” and the Emmy award-winning “Change Partners and Dance,” were no exceptions. Although Astaire ultimately allowed you to proceed ‘because of your tenacity’ (lucky for us), you also had to persuade others to participate, including Ginger Rogers. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Dave: We knew we had to go all out to persuade Ginger Rogers to appear. But Ginger was fed up with talking about Fred. She’d received an Oscar for Kitty Foyle, and felt that she’d had an important career quite separate from the times she danced with Astaire. But everyone still wanted to talk about the films she and Astaire made together. It took all our skills of persuasion to get her to agree to an interview – which was worth the effort, because she had lots to say about those famous dance numbers.

Joan: After writing to Ginger Rogers to ask her to participate and receiving a fast “No,” I told David that he should call her. He’s a man, a director, and has a British accent, which I knew would be foolproof…and it was.

CMH: The Astaire documentaries were just the first in a long line of coups for you, not the least of which was convincing Katharine Hepburn to consent to a documentary about herself. Hepburn was known to be strong-willed and had quite a reputation for protecting her privacy, yet you were able to change her flat-out ‘no’ to an effective ‘yes’ in a matter of minutes.  Could you please tell us a little bit about that pivotal phone conversation?

Dave: I had to gather all my courage to pick up the phone and dial Hepburn’s number. She answered herself, and in the space of that call my emotions went from intimidation to elation. How that transpired is vivid in my memory to this day, and is recounted in detail in Chapter Three, called “That Won’t Work – They’re All Dead”, which is a clue to what happened.


David Heeley with Katharine Hepburn, In the Company of LegendsDavid directing Katharine Hepburn

“By producing ‘Starring Katharine Hepburn,” we’d passed the obstacle course through which she puts people before deciding whether or not to trust them.”  

CMH: The Hepburn documentary was a success, earning an Emmy nomination, and the approval of Hepburn.  It laid the foundation for two more projects (the Emmy award-winning “The Spencer Tracy Legacy: A Tribute by Katharine Hepburn” and “Katharine Hepburn: All About Me”)  — and launched a life-long friendship with Hepburn. Over the years you’ve been privy to what fans can only imagine. That said, can you give us a little insight into the ‘everyday’ Katharine Hepburn?  

David and Joan: Katharine Hepburn was raised in a family that encouraged its children to participate in the conversation of “the adults”; to understand that there are injustices in the world; to respect others. We hope the book reveals the more personal side of Kate – almost as a companion to our profile Katharine Hepburn: All About Me. She loved Sedutto’s mocha chip ice cream, home-made brownies, and lace cookies. She wanted people to feel comfortable in her house – going out of her way to find a chair for a stagehand. Knowing her certainly enriched our lives.


In the Company of Legends, Joan Kramer, David Heeley, with James Stewart and wife Gloria

David and Joan with James Stewart and wife Gloria

CMH: Despite being hit with quite a bombshell early on in the project, you were able to secure James Stewart for the documentary, “A Wonderful Life”.  Given that James Stewart and Ronald Reagan were long-time friends, you sent a letter to The White House requesting an interview with President Reagan. The reply came back denying the interview, but there was something very interesting about that letter that prompted you to try again. Can you elaborate on that for us?

David and Joan: So many of our requests to interview people resulted in a negative response. But one thing you learn quickly is to persevere – and that proved very true in this case. Not many letters addressed to the President of the Unites States make it through the system. Ours got as far as the Director of Presidential Appointments and Scheduling, which is probably further than most. But in turning us down, he made a crucial mistake, which in turn gave us an opening. With this ammunition, we tried another approach. And in the end, we got an interview with both Ronald and Nancy Reagan.


Johnny Carson, James Stewart and David Heeley on backlot, In the Company of LegendsDavid with Johnny Carson and Jimmy Stewart on the Universal backlot

“There’s a toughness, a stick-to-your-guns kind of courage and strength underneath that genuine niceness.”  

CMH: In working with James Stewart you witnessed his professionalism and gentlemanly character first hand — and also his steadfast ability to stand his ground over things he didn’t want to discuss.  How would you say that Stewart’s image measured up to the real man or vice versa?

David and Joan: Audiences tend to think of James Stewart as the character in It’s a Wonderful Life or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But we shouldn’t forget the tougher roles in Winchester 73, Bend of the River, etc., and the very complex parts he played in the Hitchcock movies like Vertigo and Rear Window. He was able to perform all those roles convincingly because there were so many sides to his own character. He was certainly gentlemanly and charming, but he also had led bombing raids over Germany in World War Two – you have to be tough to do that. We saw a little bit of that toughness and determination during our interview with him. But the strongest images that remain are of the day we spent shooting with him and Johnny Carson on the Universal backlot. He was charming, friendly and utterly professional. All things you would expect from Jimmy Stewart.


Audrey Hepburn, In the Company of LegendsAudrey Hepburn, The Fred Astaire Songbook documentary (1991)

CMH: You’ve interacted with so many Hollywood legends over the years — from Astaire, Hepburn and Stewart as mentioned above — to Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, Joanne Woodward, Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, Johnny Carson, among others.  At times it must have seemed quite surreal… What memories stand out in your minds as the ‘pinch me to see if I’m awake’ moments?

David and Joan: When we’re working we’re usually too busy to be impressed by anything. It’s only later that we sometimes said, “Did that really happen?” In fact, writing this book has been a series of “did that really happen” moments: directing Katharine Hepburn for the first time; lunch with Jane Fonda and Ted Turner on Jane’s terrace in Santa Monica; Johnny Carson showing us around his home at Point Dume; Lew Wasserman inviting us to see his movie memorabilia collection.  And many, many more!


directing Katharine Hepburn, In the Company of LegendsKatharine Hepburn, The Spencer Tracy Legacy: A Tribute by Katharine Hepburn (1986)

“We met some remarkable people, and we”ll never see their likes again.”  

CMH: You share such a treasure trove of fascinating play-by-plays and behind-the-scenes stories with us — too many to mention here — but I do want to give fans a sense of the scope of your book. So, to take the above question one step further, can you share with us at least one of your favorite behind-the-scenes stories?

David: It’s hard to pick a favorite, but here’s one fun episode. We were filming with Katharine Hepburn on the MGM lot for a show about Spencer Tracy. I’d planned a shot on the roof of the famous Thalberg building which gave us a view of 20th Century Fox, where Tracy had once been a contract player. However there was no fence or guardrail at the roof’s edge, just a low wall. And, not having a very good head for heights myself, I wasn’t going to ask Hepburn to get any closer to it than was comfortable for me, so I suggested she stand about three feet in. But as we were setting up, she said, “Wouldn’t it be better if I sat on the ledge?” “Possibly,” I said, “But I don’t want to risk losing the star.” “Oh, nonsense,” she replied dismissively, perching herself on the narrow parapet. “I can see tomorrow’s headlines: ‘Star Falls Off Roof of Thalberg Building – Or Was Pushed!’” she laughed.

Joan: One of my favorite moments was picking up the phone and hearing, “Hello Joan. It’s Kate Hepburn. Why don’t we do a show together about Spencer?”


spencer tracy diary page about  starting work with Katharine Hepburn on Woman of the Year 1941Entry page in Spencer Tracy diary from Aug 27, 1941… started working with Katharine Hepburn, Woman of the Year…

CMH: You’ve been able to collect some very special momentos over the years — from autographs and photos to lithographs and, yes, even paper towels. If you had to pick, what are some of your most prized possessions?

David and Joan: The James Stewart sketches of Harvey (in the book). Hirschfeld lithographs of Tracy and Hepburn signed, one for each of us, with the inscription, “My affection and gratitude.” The Henry Fonda drawings given to us by Shirlee Fonda (in the book). We could go on. There are more that mean a great deal to us.


lauren bacall with david heeley, In the Company of LegendsDavid with Lauren Bacall filming the Bacall on Bogart documentary (1988)

“In the documentary arena, the list of those we did work with still astounds us.”  

CMH: Okay — now brace yourself for the toughest question of all! If you had to choose just one documentary that you are particularly fond of, or proud of, which one would it be, and why?

David and Joan: That is like asking parents to say who is their favorite child, or wanting Fred Astaire to choose his favorite partner. They all have a special place, and each is memorable in one way or another. However, if we’re forced to choose, we would have to say Katharine Hepburn: All About Me. It was the last of our many collaborations with Kate. And it was unique in its approach. None of the other profiles had its subject as host, telling her own story directly to the viewer – a style that worked so well largely because of Hepburn’s unique personality.


Joan and David’s documentaries include:

Fred Astaire: Puttin’ On His Top Hat 1980
Fred Astaire: Change Partners and Dance 1980
Starring Katharine Hepburn 1981
Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward 1984
Judy Garland: The Concert Years 1985
The Spencer Tracy Legacy: A Tribute by Katharine Hepburn 1986
James Stewart: A Wonderful Life 1987
Bacall on Bogart 1988
Broadway’s Dreamers: The Legacy of The Group Theatre 1989
The Perfect Tribute 1991
The Fred Astaire Songbook 1991
Fonda on Fonda 1992
Katharine Hepburn: All About Me 1993
The Universal Story 1996
The Lady with the Torch 1999
The John Garfield Story 2003
The Adventures of Errol Flynn 2005


Thanks again to Joan Kramer, David Heeley, and Beaufort Books for this fascinating book and interview. To purchase the book on amazon, just click here or click on the image below:


–Annmarie Gatti for Classic Movie Hub

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