Dealing with Bullies

Burt Prelutsky
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Posted: Sep 04, 2006 12:00 AM

I hate bullies. Always have, always will. Because I was younger and smaller than my classmates in grammar school, I have been aware of them for a great many years. You might even say I’ve made a study of them. One of the things I’ve uncovered is that occasionally size isn’t the determining factor; meanness is. In some families, for instance, it’s the smallest person who turns out to be the biggest bully. Lacking size and strength, he depends on guile. What he does is provoke his larger sibling by constantly annoying him, knowing full well that if his big brother gives him a well-deserved whack or even yells at him, it’s the older kid the parents will punish.

What occurs in homes also happens on the world stage. Islamic terrorists provoke Israel time and again, and when the Jews finally strike back, most of the world parrots the despicable Kofi Annan in condemning Israel.

In our personal lives, too often we find that the schoolyard bullies morph into bullies in the workplace. It never fails to amaze and infuriate me when I hear the tales of woe told by employees who are required to grovel to second-rate Hitlers and Napoleons. Only morons actually believe you get the most out of your work force through intimidation, but, down deep, these tin horn bosses are less concerned with morale and productivity than with inflating their tacky little egos.

For what it’s worth, I’ll tell you about the time I got the best of a famous bully.

Back in 1968, I was writing a profile of Jackie Gleason for the L.A. Times. The assignment required that I spend a week with The Great One, as he called himself, in Burlingame, an upscale community south of San Francisco.

He was shooting a movie, “Skidoo,” which even he acknowledged was a stinker. When I asked him why he had bothered coming all the way out from Florida to make it, he explained, “The money, of course.” A good answer, but a very, very bad movie.

In any case, Otto Preminger was directing this particular bomb. So far as I was concerned, the man had made only one decent movie in his entire career, “Laura,” and that had been about 25 years earlier. In the meantime, he had earned a reputation for being one of the nastier people in a very nasty business. After just a few days on location, I had witnessed his vile temper tantrums on several occasions. He would never direct his outbursts at people like Gleason, Groucho Marx or Carol Channing, people who would have handed him his head and gone home. Instead, he’d explode at underlings who had to take it -- people like the aging character actor Arnold Stang or one of the prop guys. Preminger would be so loud and so insulting that it made every bystander feel like an accomplice.

Once, during a dinner break, I was seated next to Gleason, across from Preminger. Suddenly, one of the director’s assistants came over and whispered in his ear. The director got up and joined two men standing off by the side. They spoke for a few minutes, and Preminger then rejoined us.

I asked him if there was a problem. He said they were representatives of Robert Kennedy, who had entered the race for president, and they had come seeking Preminger’s endorsement.

So like a Hollywood liberal, I recall thinking -- lends his name and donates money to the so-called party of the little people while in the meantime he enjoys nothing better than grinding little people under his heel.

The next thing I knew, my reverie was interrupted by Preminger’s leaning across the table, spittle flying out of his mouth, that ugly little vein nearly popping out of his forehead, yelling at me: “You will not write this!”

Well, until that moment I had no intention of mentioning the incident in my Gleason piece. But I really don’t like being screamed at or having people spitting on my food. “I’ll write whatever I like. Besides, what’s the big deal?”

“It shouldn’t look like they had to come asking for my endorsement. I fully support Senator Kennedy.”

“Well, that’s nice. Maybe I’ll mention it, maybe I won’t.”

“You won’t!” (Actually, Preminger retained a thick Austrian accent even after decades in America, and “won’t” sounded like “von’t.” There was a reason, after all, that he often portrayed Nazis in other people’s movies -- most notably in “Stalag 17.”)

I reminded Preminger that he was in no position to give me orders. For one thing, his star wanted me there. For another, I was headed home the next day. On the other hand, I was prepared to offer him a deal. He sat back, narrowed his nasty little eyes, and asked, “What sort of deal?”

“Tonight, while you’re shooting the movie, you won’t holler at anyone.”

He looked at me as if I’d suddenly lapsed into Chinese. “What do you mean?”

“I mean you won’t raise your voice. Not once. No screaming.”

“But they like it when I scream.”

Which even I have to admit is one of the funniest lines I’d ever heard.

“Well,” I said, “I don’t think they do, but what’s more important, I don’t like it.”

He thought it over, then stuck out his hand. We shook. True to his word, he didn’t scream at anyone that night. I’m sure, being the bully that he was, he started in again the next day, but I was on a plane back to L.A.

In dealing with bullies, blackmail, as you’ve just seen, is good, but, in the long run, bombing the hell out of them is even better.