Lynda Dummar (Mary Steenburgen): C'est la vie.
Melvin Dummar (Paul Le Mat): What's that?
Lynda: French, Melvin. I used to dream of becoming a French interpreter.
Melvin: You don't speak French.
Lynda: I told you it was only a dream.
It is probably most people's secret dream to have a fortune just drop into their laps no questions asked. The origin of the fortune would surely differ, but you'd like to have a lifetime's worth of financial security without having to work for it, wouldn't you? Of course, you would — because then work could be an option, not a necessity.
It would really take the pressure off the whole thing.
Unless you happen to be Melvin Dummar. Dummar, a Utah gas station owner, claimed to have rescued billionaire Howard Hughes when he was stranded in the Nevada desert in December 1967. Dummar said the man asked to be driven to the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, about 150 miles from where Dummar claimed to have found him, and only revealed his identity to Dummar in the last minutes of their drive together.
A few weeks after Hughes' death in 1976, a handwritten will was found at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter–Day Saints in Salt Lake City. In part, the will awarded one–sixteenth of Hughes' fortune to Dummar.
But it wasn't cut and dried. Dummar couldn't just show up and collect $156 million — which is what his share of the estate would have been — unless the will had been determined to be legitimate. When that much money is involved, you can be sure there will be someone who will contest the will, and, in this case, there were several someones contesting the will. In 1978 a Nevada court ruled that the will was a forgery.
Really, it couldn't have been hard to reach that conclusion. For one thing, the will gave $156 million to the Mormon Church, even though Hughes was never a member of the church. He employed many Mormons, but he never was one. For another, it named a former Hughes CEO, who left Hughes' employ on bad terms more than a decade before the will supposedly was written, as the executor of Hughes' estate. Numerous words were misspelled — including the name of Hughes' cousin. The will left money to Hughes' two ex–wives, even though both had alimony settlements that specifically prohibited them from making any claims on Hughes' estate. And it left $156 million to someone named "Melvin DuMar."
Two years later, Jonathan Demme made a movie based on Dummar's story. It was called "Melvin and Howard," and it made its premiere on this day in 1980.
How incredible it would have been if the story had been true.
But the movie, wrote film critic Roger Ebert, "doesn't depend on whether the so–called Mormon Will was really written by Hughes. That hardly matters. This is the story of a life lived at the other end of the financial ladder from Hughes. It sees Dummar as the kind of American hero who would send [Horatio] Alger out to hang himself."
If Ebert was right about the film's objective — and he usually was — it succeeded on that level.
"The genius of 'Melvin and Howard' is that it is about Melvin, not Howard," Ebert wrote. "The film begins and ends with scenes involving the Hughes character, who is played by Jason Robards as a desert rat with fading memories of happiness. Dummar stops in the desert to answer a call of nature, finds Hughes lying in the sagebrush, gives him a ride in his pickup truck and gets him to sing."
And, Ebert observed, Robards was "chillingly effective" in his role — and Robards certainly could be that if the part called for it. I have seen many of Robards' performances, and he always did what the role called for.
"But this movie belongs to Paul Le Mat, as Dummar," Ebert wrote. "He is pleasant, genial, simple of speech but crafty of mind, and always looking for an angle. He angles for Milkman of the Month, he plots to get his wife on a TV game show, he writes songs like 'Santa's Souped–Up Sleigh,' he plays the slots at Vegas and goes through his life asking only for a few small scores."
It also belonged to Mary Steenburgen, who won Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Dummar's wife.
I was familiar with Steenburgen before most moviegoers were, I guess. She was a student at the small college where my father taught. I can't tell you what she majored in — probably theater arts — but she was active in the drama department, appearing in several stage productions in the late '60s and early '70s. I know. I saw some of them, heard about others.
She moved to New York in 1972 and was discovered by Jack Nicholson, as I understand it, and made her movie debut in "Goin' South" in 1978. "Melvin and Howard" was her third big–screen appearance.