"People think I'm being facetious when I say I once toyed with a life of crime," filmmaker Woody Allen recently told 1,400 students, professors and alumni during a standing-room-only screening of his new comedy, "Small Time Crooks," at UCLA's Wadsworth Theater.
The life-of-crime idea came after Allen, a poor student in high school, discovered he couldn't make the height requirement to join the NYPD. "So I considered becoming a criminal, where there were no height requirements whatsoever," he said. "I thought of being a swindler, maybe a bookmaker, maybe I'd go into schemes or clever burglaries. I saw myself on boats and cruises, cheating people at card games or cleverly cracking safes."
All the while, he said, he was the kind of "kid in the movie house who yells up at the screen, annoyingly, purportedly funny things." On a lark, Allen wrote some jokes, sent them "to somebody who was peripherally involved in show business," and a month later was working in comedy. "All those elaborate plans to become a master criminal went out the window," confides Allen, who instead channeled his crime fantasies into caper films like "Take the Money and Run." Allen concedes he is lucky: "I would now be doing time if I weren't funny," he said.
Of course, the event's moderator, Esquire's Bill Zehme, had to ask Woody why he hates L.A. Allen responded that he always teases things he loves, though he could never live here. "I like a gray, nervous, concrete city," he said.
Nevertheless, Allen feels affection for the smoggy city, which was where all his childhood movie heroes lived and where he filmed the giant breast scene from "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask." L.A. is where he got to know Groucho Marx, who was "the kind of elderly Jewish man that you'd meet at a Bar Mitzvah, who'd shake your hand with a $50 bill in it and make wisecracks."
Of course, the then-young comedian couldn't resist a few morbid musings about Marx: "I thought, 'If I really become famous, this is what it is in the end. You lose your teeth and your hair and you're making wisecracks to waitresses.'"
Allen may be concerned about losing his hair and his teeth, but he's not a hypochondriac, he insists; he's merely an "alarmist." "If I have chapped lips, I think I have a brain tumor," he said. "I cut right to the worst possible scenario." Allen whipped out a silver pill box containing eight pills: "It's an assortment of pharmaceuticals rivaling the Merck company," he revealed. "I take them everywhere. I don't like to feel that God forbid, I should be anywhere I can't lay my hands on something that will ameliorate suffering."Another revelation from Allen: He admitted he lied for years about why he never attended the Oscars. It wasn't because the ceremony fell on the same night he performed with his jazz band. "I just don't like to fly," he said. "And why should I travel 3,000 miles to sit nervously in an audience and I can't get my car out of the parking lot at the end?"