Is Jennifer O’Neill Bankable?

By Frank Vespe

Having a screenplay optioned and sold is the pinnacle, the summit, the Mount Everest for writers who’ve published hundreds of short stories in publications for little or no payment, just to have their unique stories told, see their names in print, whether to reaffirm the gift to weave a tale unlike any other or simply to impress four children, including me. But the journey along that yellow brick road is sometimes fraught with potholes.

My childhood in Queens was always orchestrated around a challenge, fueled by the unknown, whether sharing my Cracker Jack with the rats on the shores of the East River under the Hell Gate Bridge in Astoria Park (I was 5 years old when my parents feared I was kidnapped after I wandered off to feed them, and the N.Y.P.D. pulled me wading from the polluted, crashing tide), or riding New York City subways to the toughest neighborhoods to play with the best basketball players in Queens — Jamaica, Ravenswood, Queensbridge projects — getting pummeled and a broken nose in the boxing ring in Lost Battalion Hall’s basement in Rego Park, necessitating two rhinoplasties 10 years later, or to the Bronx, dribbling in the shadow of Yankee Stadium, or on the courts of Manhattan in Harlem at Rucker Park, Alphabet City, or the Lower West Side to sharpen my basketball skills, where many times my long blond hair, blue eyes, and torn, soiled, low-top white Converse sneakers made me an outcast, but always forging the most memorable experiences, making friends where friends didn’t exist, and, miraculously, enabling me to confidently strike up a conversation with anyone, anywhere, anytime, intimidated forever by no one.

Fast-forward to a few years ago, when my teenage son Paul played for the East Hampton High School basketball team and wanted to improve his basketball skills, just like his dad many years ago, and he asked me for advice.

“If you really wanna fine-tune your game,” I told him, “you gotta go back to where I played, the projects of Queens, taste hunger, take an elbow to that pretty face, six stitches above the right eye, play with kids who chase the ball like hundred-dollar bills are taped to it.”

And so my riches-to-rags, East Hampton-to-Queens, fish-out-of-water screenplay was born, “Pretty Doesn’t Get You Into the NBA,” a script that, when submitted to contests like Nicholl, Blue Cat, and the International New York Film Festival, received rave reviews and best screenplay awards, soon catching the attention of a producer who optioned and bought it from me with plans to invest $5 million to turn it into a feature film.

This past May, 30-degree mornings resurrected my concerns of climate change, leading me to conceive a “Twilight Zone” type of story titled “Summer of 32,” in which every day, year round, remains a constant 32 degrees. Recalling a movie titled “Summer of ’42,” I thought connecting my story and the film would make for a great hook.

After researching the movie, I wrote a short story about an intimate relationship with its main character, Dorothy Walker, played by Jennifer O’Neill, in a beach bungalow on Fire Island that was being washed away by oncoming tides exacerbated by climate change, destroying a perfect love affair. Two East End newspapers printed my story, and I mailed a copy to Jennifer O’Neill’s assistant, not having much hope she’d read it.

A week later, an email arrived from Jennifer telling me how she really enjoyed my story and looked forward to reading more of them.

During the summer of ’18, I emailed her a few of my tales, and she confided in me her roller-coaster life, a life that appears spectacular but underneath is so sad it makes me traumatized to think of it. I wonder how she survived; it haunts me every day. 

Near the end of October, I asked if she’d read my script, just optioned and sold — perhaps there was a part for her — unconcerned if producers would mind my asking Jennifer O’Neill to be in my movie.

“Send it along, but I’m very busy,” her email read, “will get back to you in a few weeks.”

That Thursday, I overnighted my 109-page script, hoping to hear from her in a month, but I wasn’t holding my breath.

Two days later, Saturday evening was crisp, not a cloud in the sky, when I parked in the 7-Eleven lot for my three-mile walk around Montauk. The full moon had a peculiar hue around it — I found it peaceful, dreamlike, mystical, hovering there alone in a clear, dark sky. I stared at it as I walked east toward the Point, lost in its beauty, but then, when I turned the corner in front of St. Therese Church toward the Sloppy Tuna, my cell rang and interrupted my trance.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Frank, it’s Jen, Jen O’Neill.”

“Jennifer?” I asked.

“Is it a bad time? I’ll call you when it’s better,” she politely said.

“No no. I’m taking a walk in Montauk,” I said, sitting on the church’s polished granite bench, the full moon illuminating me like a spotlight.

“Really? I lived at the last house on the right,” she continued.

“Wow,” was the only word that came to mind.

“I had a few minutes, picked up your script, read the first pages, and couldn’t put it down,” she said.

“Are you sure you read my script?” I asked.

“I spent the last three hours reading it, taking notes, a lot of notes.”

“Hope you liked it,” I said.

“I loved everything about it — the story, the characters, the dialogue, everything — and not only do I want to star in it, I want to direct it.”

“Direct it? Like for a TV show?”

“TV show?” She giggled. “No no, my dear, I’m taking your story to another level . . . a film, the big screen. We’ll work side by side tweaking it.”

I sat bewildered, in awe as super-actress and Cover Girl Jennifer O’Neill, star of 50 movies, praised my screenplay as if the name below the title were Salinger, Serling, or Hemingway.

And for the next hour we chatted like best friends reconnecting after a long absence, with her sincerest promise to direct a love story like no other.

“You’re a compelling guy, take my cell number,” she said. “Call me anytime.”

And I have, often.

The next day I called the producer with the news of Jennifer O’Neill’s desire to direct my screenplay.

“I’m leaning toward having a woman direct my movie,” I said.

“Great idea. Who do you have in mind?”

“Jennifer O’Neill.” 

“Jennifer O’Neill, the model?” the producer asked.

“I sent her my script last week —”

“We had a chat about you not promising parts to anyone,” the producer said.

“You said not to offer parts, nothing about directing, right?”

“Well —”

“Jennifer’s a huge actress, Cover Girl, really, really, really a big star,” I continued.

“She’s been out of the public eye for 20 years,” the producer countered.

“That’s even more of a reason, kinda like a female version of Rocky, the underdog making a comeback. Everyone deserves a second chance, right?” 

“What has she directed?” the producer asked. 

“She’s starred in over 50 movies.”

“That’s nice, but what has she directed?” the producer said, pressing me for an answer.

“She’s had a lot of heartache in her life, and if anyone knows about falling in and out of love, I say she’s well qualified, the perfect person to direct a love story.”

“But is she bankable?”

“Very beautiful,” I answered.

“I didn’t ask if she’s beautiful, I asked if she’s bankable,” the producer said.

“What’s bankable?” I asked.

“Investors will give money to make a film when an actor or actress is well known. That’s bankable. But is Jennifer O’Neill bankable?”

“I’ll be an investor. Keep the money for my script, and I’ll waive all my future earnings from the film, and give it to her, okay?”

“That’s not how it works, my friend,” the producer continued. “When you signed our contract, you sold all your rights to us. It’s not like one of your Queens street games — no do-overs.”

“But —”

“Finding a director, probably a well-known female director, will be easy,” the producer said.

“I hear passion in her voice, I feel passion in her voice. I can’t explain it, it’s surreal, and . . .”

“And what, Frank? What’s so special about Jennifer O’Neill?”

“My soul tells me she’s the one. I’ll bet my life on it.”

A quiet pause.

“Here’s my offer,” the producer whispered, “bring 2 million to the table, or a bankable star, and your BFF directs your movie.” 

“BFF? What’s that?” I asked.

“Best friends forever.”

Thanksgiving weekend, my overly social kids threw a massive party in my backyard, deck, and basement. “Stay in your room, Dad!” they screamed, leaving behind hundreds of red Solo cups, six Ping-Pong balls (I don’t own a Ping-Pong table), and 93 empty cans strewn everywhere, each labeled 5-cent return, which I gathered in a 30-gallon Hefty bag and took the next day to King Kullen’s recycling bin in Bridgehampton, collecting $4.65 in change, leaving me only $1,999,995.35 short on my quest to have Jennifer O’Neill direct my movie.

Anyone throwing a party this weekend?


Frank Vespe is a regular “Guestwords” contributor. He lives in Springs.