The Telephone Book screens on Wednesday night, January 25 at 92YTribeca, with producer Merv Bloch on hand for a Q&A.
In Nelson Lyon’s The Telephone Book (1971), an unnamed woman holds a phone close to her mouth and, in chilling detail, explains what it's like to masturbate with a peeled banana. Forty years after that film's debut, describing the scene from his Upper West Side office, Merwin "Merv" Bloch—silvery hair, tortoise shell glasses, wide-creased dimples — can't keep himself from giggling exasperatedly, rolling his head back. "To this day, I can barely watch it with an audience. The squishing around is the thing that gets me." The film was his first, and last, feature film producer credit.
A veteran of the advertising business, Bloch grew up in Manhattan; as a high school student, he caught word that a movie was being shot in his apartment building. He perched himself in a corner and, for hours, watched a scene reworked ad nauseum by a lanky, nasal-voiced director in his early twenties: it was Stanley Kubrick, shooting Killer's Kiss. "He's really responsible for my total interest in moviemaking," Bloch says. (Years later, he would tell Kubrick—on MGM's dime, working on poster campaigns for 2001.) His first movie gig was driving a sound van on North By Northwest; a year later, stationed at Fort Dix in New Jersey, he paid a quarter to see the finished product, and his friends had to stop him from excitedly talking over the movie.
After college, working as an ad man for major studios, he supervised print and trailer campaigns, beginning sometimes even before production—"for the Wall Street people." He was also a co-creator of Jericho, a short-lived show on CBS about espionage during World War II. (Bloch's office is abundant with mint-condition wartime toys and memorabilia, much of it from Germany.) His stable included legendary illustrators Richard Amsel, Bob Peak, and Frank McCarthy. "Illustrators saved my ass," he says. "But I had to master the art of denial, at one point, because we worked on a lot of crappy movies." In 1968, Bloch founded Rosebud Studio, Inc.—the "boutique" firm that transitioned him away from studio accounts and allowed him to supervise trailer and poster packages for specific movies. His biggest return client was Woody Allen.
Two years later, he and a "dirty young man" on his payroll (Lyon) set out to make their first feature—the European-inflected Telephone Book. He balanced both jobs, with many clients operating on west coast time. "22 hours a day," he sighs. Indicating an autographed still on the wall—him coaching Orson Welles at a microphone—he continues: "I asked him, 'How did you do it? You were doing all these radio shows, directing films...'" he trails off for a moment, then abandons his New York accent in a flash; grinning, his next voice bears an unmistakable imprimatur, like reverberating echoes of butter being slathered on the inside of a car tire. He becomes Welles: "'I loved it. Best time of my life, Merv.'"
The overlap of careers influenced the film. Bloch cast Norman Rose, whose own gravelly baritone in countless trailers and commercials (including Bloch's) earned him the nickname "the voice of God", as the ultimate phone pervert—incognito behind a plaster pig mask. "He was not a handsome man, but who else could turn a woman on with an obscene phone call?" Rose's role cost him his biggest annuity—doing voiceovers for U.S. Army recruitment commercials. "He laughed. He had plenty of work anyway; he was the top guy." (Bloch also helped foster the voice career of Don "In A World…" LaFontaine, providing him with trailer gigs at Paramount in the 70s.)