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Alaskan explorer "Yukon" Yates publishes book about life’s adventures

By Alicia Dietrich

Walter “Yukon” Yates, 86, recently published the autobiography Breakaway, which documents his life as an Alaskan explorer, bush pilot, gold miner, airplane and airport builder, helicopter crash survivor, World War II veteran, documentary filmmaker, grizzly bear hostage, and all-around adventurer.

Yates’s story was detailed by filmmaker Warren Skaaren (1946–1990) in the documentary of the same name. Breakaway (1978) was the first film that Skaaren wrote and directed, and materials related to the film can be found in the Skaaren archive at the Ransom Center. Skaaren later worked on scripts for such films as Top Gun (1986), Beverly Hills Cop II (1987), Beetlejuice (1988), Days of Thunder (1990), and Batman (1989).

The archive includes correspondence between Yates and Skaaren as they scripted and planned the documentary and negotiated business terms, Skaaren’s notes on the film, promotional materials, photos, and fan letters.

Born in 1924, Walter Yates spent his early years on Burny Mountain (now called Yates Mountain) in Arkansas, living in a log house built by his father. At age 10 his family moved off the mountain and later moved to Texas. Yates loved to read adventure stories and dreamed of the day he would live some of his own. He joined the U.S. Marine Corps at age 17, one week before Pearl Harbor thrust the U.S. into World War II. He served in the South Pacific and was wounded on the island of Guadalcanal.

After Yates learned to fly, his adventures led him all over the world. His love of the wilderness drew him to the North Country where he built a log cabin 100 miles from the nearest neighbor and lived off the land for an entire year in isolation while filming the documentary Breakaway.

Tragedy nearly ended his adventurous life when his helicopter crashed and burned in British Columbia in 1978. Badly injured, he lay there for 14 days before being rescued by the Royal Canadian Air Force. The story made international news.

After his recovery, Yates spent several years gold mining in the Yukon Territory.

Yates has built several boats, two helicopters, and an airplane. As a real estate developer, he established many residential neighborhoods, including the fly-in subdivision called Breakaway Park in Cedar Park, Texas, where residents keep their planes in their backyards. He lives there today with his wife, Tracy.

 

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Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents

By Tom Kemper

Cover of Tom Kemper’s ‘Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents’
Cover of Tom Kemper’s ‘Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents’

Tom Kemper, author of Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents (University of California Press, 2009), did research for his book in the Ransom Center’s film collection with funding from the Warren Skaaren Film Research Endowment. He shares some of the surprising information he discovered while working with the Myron Selznick papers and the David O. Selznick collection at the Center.

The announcement of this year’s Academy Award nominations reminds me of the tried-and-true tradition of winners thanking their agents. It happened for the first time in 1962. And the press took notice. When Ed Begley won for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), reports noted that he “surprised Hollywood by thanking his agent, George Morris, from the stage.” Another article called it a “Hollywood first.” Little did they realize it would become part of the standard Oscar script.

This “Hollywood first” coincides with a lot of standard beliefs about the emergence of Hollywood agents. In popular opinion—in journalism, fan culture, and places like classic movie channels—and even academic circles (in histories and textbooks), it has been assumed that agents first hit the scene around this time and then surged in the 1970s with Armani-clad power brokers like Mike Ovitz, the rise of Creative Artists Agency (CAA) and International Creative Management (ICM), and right on up to Ari Emmanuel (aka Ari Gold). I assumed much the same when I began my project. When I dug around in various historical sources and archives to see what agents were doing in the 1930s, the classic Hollywood studio era, I thought this material might serve as the preface to the book. What I found completely surprised me: agents were there at the start of the studio system and played a crucial role to its functioning as a big business. These discoveries became the entire book.

That digging led me to the Myron Selznick papers at the Harry Ransom Center, where I discovered incredible documents on the achievements of this leading agent in the 1930s. Selznick arranged packages of clients for productions (stars like Carole Lombard and William Powell and directors like Gregory La Cava or George Cukor), earned them shares in the film’s profits, and maneuvered short-term contracts for Hollywood artists—actions we tend to associate more with modern Hollywood than the classical period. Yet all are documented in the treasure trove of the Center’s archives.

One of the best moments for me as a researcher came when I discovered the files for the opening of Selznick’s London branch. There I discovered a long document in which he outlined, as a model, the operations of his Hollywood office. It gave me an invaluable historical perspective on the files as well as a blueprint for my research. I had a wonderful time at the Ransom Center and can’t wait to return (in Hollywood fashion, I’m writing a sequel to my book!).

Fellow’s Find: Screenwriter Warren Skaaren

By Alison Macor

What do Batman, Top Gun, and Beverly Hills Cop II have in common? All were rewritten by versatile screenwriter and “script doctor” Warren Skaaren. As a fellow at the Ransom Center last summer, Alison Macor, independent scholar and former film critic for The Austin Chronicle and the Austin American-Statesman, immersed herself in the Ransom Center’s Warren Skaaren collection. Macor shares her experiences working in the collection in preparation for her upcoming biography of Skaaren:

This summer I spent five weeks at the Ransom Center with the support of a Mayer Filmscript fellowship. I worked in the Warren Skaaren collection in preparation for my new book, In Batman’s Shadow: The Life and Career of Screenwriter Warren Skaaren.

In addition to writing original screenplays, the Austin-based Skaaren worked as a script doctor—rewriting screenplays by other writers—on many 1980s blockbusters, including Top Gun (1986), Beverly Hills Cop II (1987), and Batman (1989). By the time of his death in December 1990, he was one of the highest-paid screenwriters in Hollywood.

I approached the collection chronologically because I thought it was important to trace Skaaren’s development as a writer. In some cases he spent years nurturing projects like The Freddie Steinmark Story, a biopic about The University of Texas safety who lost a leg to cancer, only to see them never get made. But with each new project Skaaren perfected his writing process and style. He drafted finely detailed character sketches and elaborate “intensity” charts that measured a story’s dramatic highs and lows. Ultimately it was his ability to create multifaceted characters that caught Hollywood’s attention.

I spent most of my time reading multiple drafts of each screenplay. This can be an exciting but also painfully slow process, and the beauty of the Ransom Center fellowship is that it gave me the luxury of time in an environment conducive to such work. Because Skaaren was often hired as a script doctor and reworked screenplays initially created by others, the assignment of writing credit became a particularly delicate issue and influenced his future assignments, pay rate, and reputation. Every studio project that Skaaren worked on went to arbitration, and he kept voluminous notes and copies of all correspondence pertaining to each case. The arbitration of Beverly Hills Cop II, for instance, was especially heated because, as a sequel with a built-in audience, the film was expected to do very well, and literally millions of dollars were at stake for the writers. Indeed, the writer who worked on the screenplay prior to Skaaren (and who received a shared credit with Skaaren) sued the Writers Guild over its decision to split the writing credit. The case was still being appealed at the time of Skaaren’s death—three and a half years after the film’s initial release.

Thanks to the Ransom Center’s Steve Wilson and Katie Risseeuw, who oversaw the digitization of some of the collection’s sound recordings, I was able to hear Skaaren on tape interviewing retired British and Nepalese soldiers and even a witch doctor in preparation for his original screenplay Of East and West, a sweeping coming-of-age story set in England and Nepal. Not only did this provide the opportunity to “hear” Skaaren for the first time, but it also gave me a sense of the intense preparation that he cultivated throughout his writing career. These recordings offered a glimpse of the charm and confidence that so many of his friends and colleagues have mentioned when describing his personality and, ultimately, his success.

Watch this video as Macor further discusses her work in the Skaaren collection: