Dan Klores was a 9-year-old boy growing up in a working-class Brooklyn suburb when he first heard of the strange romance of Burt Pugach and Linda Riss.
For New Yorkers, the story was impossible to avoid in the summer of 1959, a made-for-the-tabloids tale of a love affair gone terribly wrong that began when Pugach, a 32-year-old Bronx lawyer, spotted the strikingly beautiful, 21-year-old Riss sitting on a bench and became obsessed with her.
Burt Pugach, Linda Pugach
(Magnolia Pictures; US theatrical: 1 Jun 2007 (Limited release); 2007)
Although Riss did not feel the same instant attraction toward the bespectacled, average-looking Pugach, the pair began dating after the lawyer used his self-made success to woo the younger woman (he already owned a Cadillac, a night club and a small plane).
It wasn’t until Riss discovered Pugach was already married that the relationship ended, although Pugach refused to stop courting her. Then a few months later, during a vacation to Florida, Riss met another man, fell in love and accepted his marriage proposal.
What happened next - and what continued to take place over the next 30 years - made for such an outlandish tale that when Klores, now a highly regarded public relations man and occasional filmmaker (“Viva Baseball!,” “Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story”), came across a “Where are they now?” story about the couple in The New York Times, he decided to make a movie about them.
The resulting film, “Crazy Love,” is an impeccably researched documentary that uses loads of period pop music and a vibrant editing style to document Pugach and Riss’ topsy-turvy relationship, using recent interviews with the couple as the centerpiece of its drama.
Despite the truckloads of headlines they had earned over the years - most of them less than flattering - Klores says Pugach and Riss were surprisingly open to the idea of a film right from their first meeting at a diner in Queens, which Klores arranged after looking up the couple’s number in the phone book.
“I wasn’t interested in doing it as a straight documentary at first,” Klores said. “I was thinking about making it as a hybrid of fiction and nonfiction. I wanted to find out how one can become SO insanely obsessed. Like most people, I remember the first time I had my heart broken, and those feelings lasted for a long time. Am I ever going to forget her? Is she on that subway? You do stupid things, like call their house and hang up. Burt just took it to a place where there was absolutely no emotional rein.”
Eventually, the concept of a fictional film became “too daunting and expensive,” says Klores, and he decided to make it as a documentary instead.
Pugach, now 80, says he was initially disappointed by the decision. “We never got the gist of what Dan had in mind, because he was talking about a conventional movie,” he says. “In fact, he brought Linda Fiorentino with him to that first meeting, who I guess was interested in playing Linda. Once it became a documentary, I knew I was going to get the hell beaten out of me. Did I want to tell this story again? Of course not. Am I a publicity fiend? Not at all. But I felt it was worth it.”
Klores says he shot almost 150 hours’ worth of interviews with the couple’s friends, relatives and other people associated with the story before settling down to interview Pugach and Riss. He interviewed them separately, so one’s presence wouldn’t affect the other’s recollections and impressions of the story, which included a prison stint for Pugach for a premeditated crime of passion against Riss.
“Burt is very, very bright. Alone and comfortable, without an audience to sit in front of him, he was remarkably reflective without exhibiting the guilt that audiences are used to,” Klores said. “He had absolutely no barriers, man. How good is that, right? He told me about trying to commit suicide in court. I said, `Can you show me your scars?’ He said, `Sure, look, these are the scars.’ He remembered the temperature of the blood. He described his time in prison by saying, `In solitary confinement, the only thing you can do is masturbate.’
“With Linda, it took more time to get her to open up,” Klores said. “But she ended up answering anything I asked her. The one thing she wouldn’t do - and I waited until the very end to ask her - was to take off her glasses. I’ll never forget what she said, because it broke me up. `I won’t do it because I have a glass eye, and my other eye is sutured together. I must look like a freak.’”
Some viewers and critics have come away from “Crazy Love,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, believing the couple’s marriage is simply a matter of practicality, arguing that no two people could have possibly gone through what they have and still be in love.
“I sort of laugh when I hear that, and Linda gets upset,” Pugach said. “People are saying that Linda and I don’t really love each other, and that’s it’s a marriage of convenience. But the two of us are very devoted to each other.”
Riss, 70, agrees, adding, “People are going to think whatever they want. But Burt and I are very much in love with each other. It was my choice to marry him.”
Riss’ main complaint about the film has nothing to do with the way she and her husband are presented.
“We had been approached many times in the past to make a movie, but it always fell through,” she said. “But the amount of money we got for this is a bad joke. I got $50,000 up front, and no matter what Dan Klores makes on this, I get zip. I feel injured, used. I am so angry about this. Now they want to have me go around on various programs like `Larry King’ and `The View,’ but I still don’t get a dime. Do I feel like a dummy? You got it. I am a dummy.”