In a business built on illusion, assistant director Ridgeway "Reggie" Callow appropriately began his remarkable career by faking his way into a job for Howard Hughes. "I didn't know a thing about the picture business or bookkeeping," he said in a 1973 interview, "so I bluffed it through for a week and got pretty good."
Starting out with Hughes on Hell's Angels (1930), for whom he climbed into a vintage World War I fighter plane when one of the stars failed to show, Callow became one of the savviest nuts and bolts production pros in the industry.
He was among the original ADs to join the Guild in 1938 and was active in what was then the Junior Council. He signed on with Selznick International Pictures where he worked on Alfred Hitchcock's first American picture, Rebecca (1940). Callow was surprised to discover that his fellow U.K. native never looked through the camera. "He had a little pad and he'd do a rough sketch, and say to the cameraman, 'I want a big head close-up,'" he recalled. "When I asked Hitch why he never looked through the camera, he said, 'The cameraman knows his business, that's why I hired him. Why should I tell him what lens to use?'"
Callow understood that a big part of an AD's job was dealing with Hollywood royalty, and later in his career he lectured up-and-coming actresses at 20th Century Fox's talent school. "Promptitude is the most essential quality," he told the budding starlets.
A natural raconteur, Callow related countless stories about working with his leading ladies. For instance, on Gone with the Wind (1939), a scene called for Vivien Leigh to hide from the cavalry under a bridge. "We dirtied her up and [she] said, 'Oh, I'm not dirty enough.' Then she threw herself in the mud and rolled in it."
During The Merry Widow (1952), Callow bargained a bottle of champagne with Lana Turner every night to get the star to finish a large shot with extras before overtime kicked in. It worked, until Turner broke her end of the deal by dallying on a personal phone call. Callow remembered telling her, "'That damn telephone call cost MGM $2,500.' And she told me what MGM could do."
Callow also had plenty of tales about dealing with studio executives. When Columbia boss Harry Cohn demanded ADs call in the time of each day's first shot, Callow outsmarted him by starting with an insert "which [the director] could knock off by 9:05 on a 9:00 shooting call." Then "the front office would say, 'Well, that company is in good shape,' and they'd leave you alone."
But Callow knew his most important relationship on the set was with the director, as he assisted the likes of John Huston (The Red Badge of Courage, 1951), Stanley Donen (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, 1954), and Lewis Milestone (Mutiny on the Bounty, 1962). He also worked successfully with Robert Wise on 10 pictures. "Mr. Wise channels everything through me," Callow said, explaining how he helped the director accomplish what he wanted. "If anybody asks him a question that is not directly concerned with an actor's performance, he'll say, 'Take it up with Reggie.'"
For the complex Hong Kong location shoot for Wise's The Sand Pebbles (1966), Callow prepared a nine-way call sheet, specifying what scene would be shot depending on the weather and tides. When cushma (kickbacks to local officials) threatened to derail a key scene shot in Taiwan, he handled the situation. For John Guillermin's ill-fated The Bridge at Remagen (1969), Callow even helped orchestrate an exodus of the entire company—68 people—to Austria when Soviet troops took over Prague. "I don't know the financial returns," Callow recalled about the film. "But if blood, sweat, toil, and tears are any criteria, we deserved a smashing success."