A comedy written and directed by BARRY LEVINSON, "Tin Men" is a Touchstone Pictures presentation in association with Silver Screen Partners II. MARK JOHNSON is the film's producer.
After delving into mythological baseball in "The Natural" and a fanciful recreation of Victorian England in "Young Sherlock Holmes," writer/director Barry Levinson returned to Baltimore of the early 1960s for his fourth motion picture. In addition to being a geographical return to his hometown, the movie marked a return for Levinson to the double duty of his initial career breakthrough with "Diner" because once again he directed the film from his own original screenplay. Like "Diner," Levinson's Oscar-nominated account of adolescent angst in the 1950s, "Tin Men" had the same Baltimore restaurant as its major source of inspiration.
"'Tin Men' takes place on the other side of the diner," says Levinson. "While my friends and I used to hang out in the right hand side of the restaurant, the tin men gathered in the left. We heard stories and scams these guys were up to. They were older, but they didn't seem particularly responsible, so I was intrigued by that. Tin men are rebellious in a way, without rebelling against one specific thing. They're flamboyant and have a Damon Runyonesque quality about them. The movie is not autobiographical, but it does concern characters I knew back in 1963."
"In many ways, 'Tin Men' is a spiritual extension of 'Diner' and an additional chapter in Barry's tales of Baltimore," says producer Mark Johnson. "The characters in ,'Tin Men' are every bit as colorful and humorous as any in 'Diner,' the only difference being that they are involved in a much tighter narrative framework, resulting in more of a 'story' film than 'Diner" was.
In casting "Tin Men," Levinson had no preconceived ideas as to which actors should portray the characters. "I didn't have any particular actors in mind while writing the screenplay," he says. "I just knew that I had to have the right combination of actors to portray the feuding men, and one day it occurred to me that RICHARD DREYFUSS and DANNY DeVITO might have a good chemistry together. Then BARBARA HERSHEY came to mind. I had worked with her on 'The Natural' and felt that she had a special quality that was right for the role of Nora."
After agreeing to star in the film, his second (following last year's hit "Down and Out in Beverly Hills") for Touchstone Pictures, Dreyfuss approached the character of "BB" -- an aluminum siding salesman -- much as he would a character for any other film.
"Most people I've played in my career have been normal people in unusual circumstances," says Dreyfuss. "So in terms of playing a salesman, I've got him. He's in me, and he's in you. 'Tin Men,' is a movie of words and not just philosophy. The screenplay captures the way people speak, and for that reason I think it's probably one of the best I've come across in the past ten years."
Danny DeVito echoes Dreyfuss' fondness for the script. "When you have a well written screenplay, there's a lot off your mind. The material talks to you. I was ready to take a break from filming for a while, but when worthy projects such as this one come along, you just have to go with them."
DeVito, who was recently nominated for a Golden Globe Award as Best Actor for his role in Touchstone Pictures' "Ruthless People," feels "Tin Men" is a 'departure' for him. "The movie is a comedy, but it's not one of those high concept things. It's not broad, it has a dramatic underbelly to it and gave me an opportunity to be a real character, not a caricature."
Playing Nora Tilley was one of Barbara Hershey's most enjoyable acting experiences. "I was very impressed when I first read the script of 'Tin Men,'" she says. "Barry Levinson is a genius writer because he can depict the way people really speak. Many times you can hear a similar voice coming through all the characters in a screenplay, but all of Levinson's characters are distinct and unique."
Hershey, who won widespread acclaim for her performance in Woody Allen's award-winning comedy "Hannah and Her Sisters," sees some similarities in the way Levinson and Allen both approach comedy. "Barry and Woody both know how to find the humor in the human condition," she explains. "They do what I call human comedy, which to me is funnier and more deeply affecting than a movie that is content just to relate jokes. Barry's script is very personal and at the same time universally appealing. We were all having such fun with our characters that we were in acting heaven."
In assembling Tilley and BB's cohorts in the aluminum siding business, Levinson drew upon the comedic talent of JACKIE GAYLE to play Sam, Tilley's partner. "I like Jackie's style," says Levinson, "he's very quick-witted and I thought that he would complement Danny's character perfectly."
A veteran of television variety shows and frequent performer in nightclubs from Las Vegas to Atlantic City, Gayle found that the film enabled him to step out of his role as comedian and into the role of an aluminum siding salesman. "In the previous films I've appeared in ("Seven Minutes," "The Tempest" and "Broadway Danny Rose"), I've always been cast as a comedian, so it was wonderful to actually play a 'real' person and be part of a team.
"There was such a terrific rapport among the group of guys, and Barry Levinson made it very comfortable for us. Everything he wrote was good, but as good as it was, he allowed us to add to it." Jackie also enjoyed working with Danny DeVito. "I learned a lot from Danny," he says. "He's an electrifying performer."
For the role of Moe, Dreyfuss' partner, Levinson decided to cast JOHN MAHONEY, a Tony Award-winning actor for his performance in the Broadway production of "House of Blue Leaves." "John has a quiet confidence," says Levinson, "and there was no doubt in my mind that he was Moe."
As for Mahoney, playing Moe was a wonderful experience. "It is a character I truly love ... warts and all," he says. "And there are warts; his ethics leave much to be desired, and justifying what he does while still loving him required a great deal of understanding of 'la condition humaine,' not to mention an advanced degree in rationalization."
As with "Diner," each of the actors Levinson selected to portray aluminum siding salesmen were totally different from one another and brought their own unique style to the film. They have a wide variety of backgrounds, but this talented ensemble -- STANLEY BROCK, BRUNO KIRBY, SEYMOUR CASSELL, RICHARD PORTNOW, MATT CRAVEN, ALAN BLUMENFELD, J.T. WALSH and MICHAEL TUCKER -- is totally convincing as a group of tin men... they live and breathe the tin game. Tucker is recreating his role as Bagel, the character in "Diner" who got Boogie (Mickey Rourke) out of trouble, and there are a number of minor characters whose faces will look familiar from "Diner."
One person who makes a cameo appearance in all of Levinson's films is RALPH TABAKIN, a Baltimore drama instructor. He bought a TV from Daniel Stern in "Diner," was a soda fountain customer in "The Natural," a policeman in "Young Sherlock Holmes," and now portrays an aluminum siding customer in "Tin Men." "Ralph is a very quirky kind of character," states Levinson, "and he has a wonderfully expressive face ... he's unusual and I like to see him in my movies."
Because of Levinson's penchant for unusual and authentic characters and his fondness for the vibrancy he finds in the people of Baltimore, it was only natural that he would incorporate as many locals as possible into "Tin Men." Open casting calls were held that attracted over 2,000 hopefuls and 40 were chosen to play speaking roles. For most of those cast, "Tin Men" marked their initiation into the world of film.
Finding a young boy to play the role of a street kid proved more difficult than Levinson anticipated. After several open casting calls and an extensive search of Baltimore schools, a boy was finally cast the day before the scene (with Danny DeVito) was to be shot. Discovered at a school in one of Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods, twelve-year-old TODD JACKSON was successful over 700 others, although he had some competition from 54-year-old Theodore Goldman, a Baltimore handyman. (Concerned that a boy would not be found in time, Levinson suggested the character be changed to an older street person.) Even though Goldman lost out to Todd in the street scene, Levinson liked the handyman so much he decided to use him in another scene in the film.
Choosing Baltimore as the location for "Tin Men" was a logical decision for Levinson since he is a Baltimore native. He knows the look of the city and how to make it come across on the screen. "There's a lot of variety in style of architecture in Baltimore and making a film with a 1963 setting is comparatively easy because of an abundance of '40s, '50s and '60s buildings. We make a few superficial changes and we're ready to shoot."
When a house was needed for the "Life Magazine" scene, Levinson suggested the house he grew up in. Located in the Forest Park area of Baltimore, it was perfect for the scene and brought back many happy memories for Levinson. "As I sat on the porch and saw the '50s and early '60s cars parked on the street, I realized that this was exactly the last image I had of the house and the neighborhood when I left to go off to school in 1963. Suddenly, here I am 23 years later sitting on the same porch directing a feature film. I never planned to be in the film industry, never planned to return to my old house, and never in a million years did I imagine I would return to recreate the period that I left. Talk about goose bumps!"
Another factor tipped the balance toward Baltimore as well. As Mark Johnson points out, "People aren't jaded: they really welcome you. For instance, a street in the northeast part of the city was blocked off for the better part of a week due to night shooting and the residents were supremely patient and fully cooperative throughout. In fact, they threw a street party for us on the last day of shooting."
Returning to Baltimore with Levinson was director of photography PETER SOVA. "Peter's ability to capture the Baltimore that I knew in the '50s with 'Diner' made him the only choice for 'Tin Men,'" says Levinson. "Whereas 'Diner' had an entirely different feel because it was shot in the fall and had a more somber look, by comparison 'Tin Men' is a much brighter, sunnier film. Colors are lighter and it's a lot more airy. It's probably busier, a little more active by virtue of the characters being more flamboyant. Peter's exceptional sense of lighting and the tone that he's created for this period is exactly how I'd imagined it... attractive without being beautiful."
Levinson's choice of music for "Tin Men" is a combination of period source material -- such as songs of Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis and Jo Stafford-- and modern.
The score to the film is being composed by the English rock group The Fine Young Cannibals, comprising Roland Gift, vocals; Andy Cox, guitar and David Steele, bass. The group previously contributed songs to the motion pictures "Something Wild" and "Letter to Brezhnev." When with the English Beat, Steele composed a song for the hit film "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."
"The sound of The Fine Young Cannibals has a sparseness to it," says Levinson, "and reminds me very much of the uncluttered music of the early '60s. It's somewhat of a basic sound, yet it has an unusual kind of richness in combining modern rhythms with traditional soul music."
THE REAL "TIN MEN"
The fascinating world of the aluminum siding business -- the sale of baked enamel aluminum for the exteriors of shingled or wooden houses -- forms the backdrop of "Tin Men." The business began in Baltimore in the early 1950s. The characters of BB and Tilley (played by Richard Dreyfuss and Danny DeVito, respectively) are representative of the special breed of aluminum siding salesmen, often referred to as "tin men." The salesmen were usually born con artists and sported such colorful nicknames as "Abe the Konk," "Jinx ," "Jake the Fake," "Marty from the Party" and "Breeze."
A typical day for a tin man started with a late breakfast (around 11:30 AM) usually in the Hilltop Diner in Baltimore. The next stop was the Pimlico Race Track where the salesmen swapped schemes and gambled away their commissions before infiltrating the suburbs in the prime evening hours. They worked no more than four hours a day, four days a week, and for the most part were adverse to full-time employment. They merely wanted to take the easy way out. Sales of aluminum siding were seen by them as a legal con game.
With their flashy clothes and new cars, tin men drove around town looking for prime candidates for aluminum siding sales, usually blue collar workers with medium incomes. The canny salesman romanced his clients in a dramatic crescendo of persuasion. The idea was to wear a person down, to the point where the homeowner would sign the contract just to get rid of the salesmen. Before homeowners could change their minds about a sale, the contractors would come along and "spike the job" by plopping siding on the lawn, ripping shingles off the house, or writing "Start on this side first" in bright red paint on the roof. There were also the pressures from the "psychology of spiking" -- if a couple halted the job, neighbors would whisper that they couldn't afford it.
Tin men earned a lot of fast, big money and had to know how to ask for $3,000 rather than $300. The actual cost of the jobs, including labor, was around $1,000. The price to the homeowner was in the area of $2,400. Thus, the salesman was able to make a $800 or $900 commission which he and his partner (the canvasser) divided. They worked a 60-40 split after expenses, depending on who owned the car.
Aluminum siding sales offices were generally off the beaten track and did not display discernible aluminum siding or home improvement signs, which discouraged unwanted visitors. The office was a place for the salesmen to congregate and bring in their jobs and be paid. Other offices were in guys' cars, street corners or eating establishments. There was actually one siding company owner who made his office in a diner booth and occasionally his other office was the hood of his car. He died a millionaire. Generally speaking, however, most tin men were incapable of saving money. They had too many bad habits, and gambling was their biggest downfall.
In 1963, Maryland's newly-formed Home Improvement Commission's code of ethics took much of the creative salesmanship out of the siding business, and "Abe the Konk," "Jinx" and company moved on to new pastures.
All of the selling techniques shown in the feature film "Tin Men" are based on actual aluminum siding salesmen pitches.