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When he was 25 years old, Rick Harrington wrote a novel about a time when women have taken over the Earth. No one wanted the book, and so he turned it into a screenplay. No one wanted that, and so 35 years later, he made the movie himself.
Now he was 62, his first movie was about to premiere and he was sitting at his desk with two lines on hold, drinking cold coffee from a jar.
"I'm sorry if I seem harried," he said. "This is just the busiest week of my life, that's all."
Again, the phone rang. On one line, the Baytown Sun wanted an interview, on another, a theater manager wanted to arrange a promotional quiz and on a third, a cast member wondered what she should wear to the opening. Entry Level Male was about to open in seven Houston theaters, and Harrington thought if he could just get 10,000 people into those theaters in one weekend, then his movie wouldn't be canceled and maybe it would crack the top 50 in the country. Maybe other theaters would show it, and the money would come rolling in, and he could make more movies, and Rick Harrington would become at his age something more than an entry-level moviemaker.
"We're below the lake now, crawling up through the mud to make it to the bottom," he said. "We've got to perform or watch it go up in smoke."
But almost everyone was betting against him. The problem wasn't just that Entry Level Male had been shot with 500 volunteers, one 30-year-old camera and a single lens, or that Rick Harrington had directed the movie he had written, and had also narrated part of it and helped to edit it and to build the props and clean out the studio. It wasn't just that the entire cost was probably less than what some movies in the cineplex had spent on food for the cast.
It was all of these things. And it was this:
"People may make fun of people who have no money and say, 'This is like Ed Wood.' That's okay," said Harrington. "Ed Wood was not the world's worst director by any means. Ed Wood had a lot of good ideas."
Ed Wood, you may recall, was the creator of Plan 9 from Outer Space and Bride of the Monster. Eventually, he became the alcoholic director of nudie monster films, and after he died in 1978, the critics voted him the worst director of all time.
Rick Harrington was unsure how the critics would receive Entry Level Male. His art has always been the commercial kind, and he has never sought critical success and rarely has agreed with the critics who bestow it. Where he tends to see great humor and depth, they tend to see nothing at all, and this was never more true than with Ishtar, Rick's all-time favorite movie.
"Colossally dunderheaded," the Hollywood Reporter called it. "A truly dreadful film," said Roger Ebert. Ishtar is generally considered one of the biggest flops of all time, but Rick's wife, Sharron, calls it "our Rocky Horror." They know all the lines and return to it again and again. "There's a lot of Rick and me in that movie," she said. Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman are hapless songwriters who go to Morocco to find work and who find themselves instead wandering through the desert without water, singing and laughing as airplanes try to shoot them down.
"They're on the brink of annihilation, and they're so happy!" said Sharron, laughing again. "Never mind that they're no damn good, that they write horrible stuff and can't sing worth beans. The point is they're so happy doing what they're doing that they don't know."
A lot of people have said, 'Rick, you're on the edge of the big time,' " said Rick. "But I guess I've never cracked the edge. You see, I started in Hollywood and worked my way down."
He wrote his first romance when he was five, about two buttons that fell in love. Rick learned how to yodel and tap dance, and at 14, became the Singing Cowboy on a Rockford, Illinois television station. He went off to study drama in California, and after he was named state yodeling champion there, someone noticed him, and he was cast in a non-yodeling role in a movie called Hell's Crossroads. Rick still remembers his first line. Just as the director told him, he kept his eyes on the horse's ass, and when it passed the camera, he shouted:
"It's Bob Ford! They got Bob Ford!"
He acted in a couple more movies -- all lost now, even to him -- and then the studio was sold, and he was let go. He came to Houston then as an actor at the Alley Theatre, and by 1966, he had also been a singer of Hawaiian music in Polynesian bars when Sharron found him managing promotions at Channel 39. He was tall and handsome, she remembers, with this "wonderful, creative, wild energy" and a script called Love in a Hot Air Balloon that he was sure would deliver him.