Back in the early ’70s Toby, who owned an automobile scrap yard in Gardena, California, told me the FBI was trying to implicate him in a car stealing-ring. He followed that by saying, “When this is over with I’m going to make a film about it.”
A year or so later, I was surprised when he invited me to a private screening of the original Gone in 60 Seconds, which was held at the CFI film processing lab in Hollywood. In attendance were about thirty other guests. Several of them were Los Angeles Police Department officers dressed in their blue uniforms. I later recognized many of them as having small parts as cops in the production. The film was about an insurance claims adjustor-played by Toby–who moonlighted as the mastermind of a car-stealing ring.
The film’s climactic 40-minute chase scene was preceded by Toby’s character, Maindrian Pace, attempting to fill a rush order for 48 stolen cars. The last car needed to fill the bill, code named Eleanor, was a yellow Mustang that led a Keystone cop like chase, ending with Maindrian driving off into the sunset in another yellow Mustang he switches for the battered one in a carwash. As the credits came to an end, and the lights went up in the screening room, there was a long, awkward silence. As the other guests sat transfixed, as though they were uncertain how to react, I jumped up to congratulate Toby.
I later worked with him distributing the movie. It was a simple job that included counting heads at theaters and watching the film for scratches. Even though I viewed the chase scene too many times to count, each time I was impressed by the way Toby tied up the storyline. This was especially true after learning he’d done all of his own stunts. One of the crashes was an unplanned accident, in which Eleanor sideswipes a telephone pole on the side of a freeway. One member of the crew said when Toby regained consciousness, the first thing he wanted to know was if the camera had captured the accident.
Years later, I went on to work with him on another film, The Junkman. Before I go there, though, I feel a need to flash back and highlight Toby’s earlier life. One of thirteen children, Henry Blight Halicki was born October 18, 1940, in Dunkirk, New York. His family was in the car towing business, and he learned to drive at the age of ten and was a knowledgeable mechanic before he reached his teens. There were many times when he showed up with his father, first on the scene, of fatal car accidents.
His brother Ron related to me, following one such accident involving many fatalities, the next day at school Toby was the center of attention regaling his classmates with graphic descriptions of the bodies that were recovered. When the teacher came into the classroom and asked whom the class would rather listen to, her or Toby, in unison the students responded, “Toby!”
Still in his teens, Toby moved to California to live with an uncle. At the age of 16,he began collecting classic automobiles, a collection that would eventually include several Rolls Royces and Ferraris. By 17, he owned an auto body shop. While still in high school, he worked out a deal with an insurance company to do minor repairs and detail more than 2,000 cars. To get the job done on time, he went to the principal of his high school and arranged to employ honor students to work for him. By 21, Toby and his partner J. C. Agajanian owned a huge salvage company. He later went on to own one of the largest toy and automobile collections in the world. It was about this time that I met Toby, who hired me to do a photographic shoot with many of his classic cars and attractive female models for a calendar project.
Shortly before he began shooting The Junkman, in the late ’70s, he called me to come into his office. This was quite a memorable experience. The courtyard was constructed to resemble a western town that might have existed more than a hundred years prior. Behind one of the facades, his office had a secret door, which allowed him to drive his Rolls Royce inside to park it. He sat at large mahogany desk that was raised about three feet off the floor. Looking up at him, Toby told me he wanted to hire me to work on his next film as one of three still photographers. With that out of the way, he went on to confide that he distrusted some of the people around him and wanted me to watch his back. Furthermore, he said ever since he began distributing Gone in 60 Seconds, he feared that his life was in jeopardy. The justification for his fears was the belief that there were people who would like to see him out of the way as an example to anyone who might consider following in his footsteps to distribute their own films.
The shooting date for the film was cancelled several times, and it would be years before it was finally released for public viewing. By the time I arrived in Paso Robles, California, filming had been underway for a few days. There were two film crews, one to shoot the primary action and another to record The Making of the Junkman. Whether it was my late arrival, being the only black person on the shoot or the fact that I was there to watch Toby’s back, for the first few days I felt like an outsider.
Nothing could have prepared me for the grueling day-to-day schedule that became routine for more than two weeks. Shortly after sunrise until the sun sank below the horizon, seven days a week, the crew was on call. By the time we ate dinner and got back to our motel rooms, it would be close to midnight. And Toby was a very demanding director, verbally abusive, often threatening to fire the entire crew. My second day on the job, I failed to be in place to photograph the crew upturning a car that had flipped during a shot. In my face, he berated me angrily. I can still see the pinpoints of fire, literally, in his eyes as he hurled a stream of invectives at me. If I had followed the urge to quit, I would not have been the first person to walk off the set. However, embarrassed by the incident as I was, I stuck around.
As time went by, I could not help but marvel at the determination and stamina Toby displayed each and every minute of the passing days. Although he had a large crew on-hand, no one expended more energy than he did. Imagine him driving a car into a crash, hopping out to sweep up the broken glass and then taking a handheld torch and crawling below the car to cut through the chassis, so when another car rammed into it at high speed it would break in half. He was a whirling dervish, and my job was to photograph him in action.
I soon got into the role and played it to the hilt. I’d jog about twelve feet in front of him, drop to a knee as he approached and snap shots-more than 10 rolls of film per day. Often I witnessed a wry smile on his face. For there was no mistaking who was in charge as the crowds of locals gathered in ever-increasing numbers to witness the filming. It also became an inside joke among the crew, when the sun would start to dip we called it Mondo Time. That’s when our pace, determined by Toby’s actions as a director in a state of panic, became frenzied.
One day following a long shoot of Susan Day George, making a speech as part of the role she played as a public official, Toby hopped on the hood of a car. With one fist raised in the air, he yelled, “Now let’s go wreck some cars!” Everyone cheered as though he’d promised to shower us with bundles of cash.
Then there was the time when a one-engine plane, following Toby’s directions, flew in a little closer during a stunt-known as a gag in stuntmen lingo. On the last pass the right wing clipped the car Toby was standing near. A portion of the wing broke off and bruised the side of his head. I was snapping shots about a hundred-yards away, directly in line with the faltering plane. For a brief second I thought it was on a collision course. But the stunt pilot quickly righted the plane and later told me he could have flown it to safety even if he’d lost the entire wing.
During the course of the filming, I learned that the stuntmen Toby hired were a special breed, a combination of risk-takers and pranksters. Over the course of one full day, a chain reaction crash was the focus. Eighteen vehicles, one-by-one, including several cars, trucks and a motor home towing a boat, were crashed. Each time the stunt drivers would heighten the suspense by pretending to be severely injured or dead doing each gag. Then when Toby and other members of the crew ran to see if they were okay, they’d spring to life, laughing.
One incident, more than all the others, will forever stand out in my mind. Toby drove one car around a winding country road-as dictated by the script–to sideswipe another car speeding in his direction. It was then I noticed a garbage truck descending a hill that intersected the road. Quickly, I saw the possibility for disastrous results. As more than thirty members of the crew stood frozen, I suspected they were waiting to see what would happen rather than reacting. Breaking into a gallop, I raced across an open field toward the road, waving my hands above my head, signaling Toby to put on the brakes.
Whether or not my actions prevented an unplanned collision, I’ll never know for certain. Nevertheless, nine years later, following Toby’s death while making Gone in 60 Seconds II, I often pondered whether my presence on the set would have saved his life. According to his brother Ron, Toby was so cost conscious that he began to cut corners, which was why I was not in upstate New York the day he died. Yet I can visualize the circumstances as though I’d witnessed them firsthand.
The gag they were setting up called for a 160 foot water tower to come crashing down. While inspecting the site–despite Ron’s dire warnings to take more precautions-Toby insisted that all was right and ready. Then a series of occurrences unfolded with a domino effect. One of the steel cables holding the water tower in place snapped and swung around to sever a telephone pole. As everyone else ran clear of the danger, Toby chose the wrong direction. And on that day, August 20, 1989, that telephone pole fell flat on H. B. (Toby) Halicki, ending the life of a good friend, who was also my daughter’s godfather.