As one of the first female assistant directors in Hollywood, Daisy Gerber has been called a lot of things, but studio big shot was not among them.
"The day I came to work as a trainee at Columbia Pictures, I was surprised to see such a fantastic parking space with my name on it [D. Gerber]," she recounts with her characteristic charm and good humor. "When I found out it belonged to [president of Columbia Television] David Gerber, I went up to him and said, 'I bet you didn't even know you had a daughter.'"
Gerber may be short in stature (she's 4-foot-11), but she's never lacked confidence. Her Hungarian upbringing included many professional female role models, and her faculty advisor at UCLA Film School, where she was the only female directing major, was Dorothy Arzner, the first woman director member of the Directors Guild.
"It never occurred to me not to apply to the DGA Training Program," Gerber says, even though she was the only woman among 3,000 applicants when it began in the mid-1960s. "When I finished first in the written part of the test, they were stunned, because they didn't think a woman could order around a crew, particularly one as small as me."
To test her mettle, Gerber was placed on a stunt-heavy pirate movie as a trainee, shot on a distant location without separate lavatories. "The stuntmen stood guard and everyone was great," she smiles. "I worked hard and minded my business and after a few weeks, I was accepted. It was always that way on every new project."
Working on the feature Bullitt (1968) was a watershed of sorts for Gerber. First AD Tim Zinnemann (son of director Fred Zinnemann) and 2nd AD Walter Hill took her under their wings, literally.
"I was put into the cockpit of a 707 with the pilot and told to make sure the jet didn't run down star Steve McQueen," who was under the plane's nose as it taxied down the runway, Gerber recalls. For a night shoot at the airport, she was sent to the parking lot to find a missing extra who may have been a member of the Black Panther Party.
"I had to check every car," she explains, "and when I found him and asked him to put on his jacket, he opened up the trunk and there were huge guns everywhere. He was very courteous and came back to the set. It turned out I'd been gone so long, they'd sent the police looking for me."
Despite such unique experience in features,
Gerber's career blossomed in television. She worked in sitcoms in the mid-'70s, and then later on a succession of TV movies directed by the late Jackie Cooper. "The crew adored him because of his long background in production and he was so respectful toward the work."
Gerber had no trouble earning the respect of Lauren Bacall the first time the film star worked
in television, on the Cooper-directed Perfect Gentlemen (1978).
"The makeup lady came out of [Bacall's] trailer crying because she'd been thrown out for using cheap makeup," Gerber says. "I had a feeling it was because [Bacall] was used to being treated like film royalty. So I went into her dressing room and asked if she would prefer to put on her own makeup. I asked her to draw up the list of what she wanted, and from then on Lauren
Bacall was a pussycat."
A self-effacing pioneer, Gerber says her only regret may be having been born in the wrong era. "Probably 90 percent of the trainees now are female," she marvels. "And there are so many talented women in the Guild. Directors like Karen Gaviola, who I mentored, and Kathryn Bigelow. Obviously it all changed; in my day they waited till I graduated the training program before having another woman come in—they wanted to see if I would make a career."
By David Geffner