It was 1980 and I had recently concluded a representation of legendary filmmaker Dino De Laurentiis. The telephone rang in my K Street office in Washington, D.C.

It was De Laurentiis calling from London. “Richard, I’m shooting a picture in London and need your help right away,” he said in his heavily Italian accented English. “Uh, oh,” I thought. “What do I know about British criminal law?”

But he didn’t need a lawyer. “I’m shooting a picture—”Flash Gordon“—and I need somebody to play a TV reporter to do a stand-up in front of the White House,” De Laurentiis said. “Can you do this for me? Just a few lines, easy. I can have a crew there tomorrow night. Wear a suit, like you were on TV. Can you help me out?”

Of the dozen questions flitting through my mind, I seized on “night.”

“Why night, Dino? Why are you shooting at night?”

“It’s because it’s a total eclipse of the sun—so we shoot it at night. Simple. We get you the script in the morning and we shoot it at night. OK?”

“OK, Dino. I’ll do it.” In truth, I never for a second considered that I wouldn’t do it. De Laurentiis’s low-tech solution to filming the report of an unpredicted solar eclipse in front of the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance to the White House turned out to be a piece of cake. I quickly memorized the few lines of the script that arrived as promised, met the crew and filmed the scene without a hitch. In fact, once we had a couple of satisfactory takes “in the can,” I had the opportunity to improvise and have a little fun with my famous client.

In the script, the eclipse was the work of Ming the Merciless—the evil ruler of the planet Mongo— played by the terrific Max Von Sydow, who delighted in finding creative ways to torture earthlings. “OK, Dino, now I give you a take you can’t refuse,” I intoned in my best “The Godfather” imitation. I proceeded to expand my role of newsreader into that of investigative reporter—looking earnestly into the camera and promising to appear again “later in this movie, when I will get to the bottom of what’s going on.”

Richard Ben-Veniste
Richard Ben-Veniste

De Laurentiis never said if he was amused by my embellishments. But he liked my scripted performance well enough to fly me to the movie set at Shepperton Studios, where the final scenes were being filmed. There, I got to meet some of my co-stars, including Topol, Ornella Muti, Timothy Dalton and Brian Blessed. What a hoot!

When the film was released, I was invited to see my acting debut on the big screen—about 30 seconds worth. However, no matter how big the big screen, my appearance was limited to a tiny television set in Dr. Hans Zarkov’s laboratory, from which these timeless words emanated:

“There seems to be no reason for these intergalactic upsets. Only Hans Zarkov, formerly of NASA, provided an explanation. His ideas, however, have been rejected as irrational. According to NASA, today’s solar eclipse is no cause for alarm. A team of scientists has been in conference with the president.”

Unfortunately, my appearance went unmentioned in the film credits, as I had declined the invitation to join the Screen Actors Guild and pay the $500 initiation charge. C’est la vie. The rest, of course, as they say in Tinseltown, is history. “Flash Gordon” went on to become a cult classic, with Von Sydow stealing the show. The Flash Gordon and Dale Arden characters, not so much.

But wait! There’s more.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, De Laurentiis had hired the iconic rock group Queen to compose, perform and produce the soundtrack for the film. Not surprisingly, the recording, released by EMI—and, particularly the title song, “Flash“—became a smash hit. The real surprise was that for some ungodly reason they lifted some of the movie dialogue as background for “Flash,” including parts of my report of the solar eclipse: “Dr. Hans Zarkov, formerly of NASA”; and “no cause for alarm” can be distinctly heard.

This, in turn—quite correctly in my view—caused EMI to include me along with Freddie Mercury and the band among the recipients of a gold record, which I have modestly displayed in my law office to this day.

This was particularly hilarious for my two daughters, since it is well-known that I am tone deaf and can’t sing a note. Indeed, when each of them were infants, defenseless and incarcerated in their cribs at bedtime, the tiny darlings begged me not to sing to them. In grade school at PS 156, the music teacher instructed me to “mouth the words.”

Yet, I’m the one with a gold record.

As I say, c’est la vie.



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