Sunday, March 20, 2011
Peter Helm was--and still is--one of those characters that are bigger than life and would be entertaining, if improbable, in a novel. He is a rare individual entirely unaffected by peer pressure or a need to conform. We hit it off immediately and forty years later nothing has changed. I first met Peter through Matthew Ettiinger and our get-togethers usually involved high-speed antics with Peter in his Ferrari California spider and Matthew and I in the Breadvan and GTO respectively. Matthew's nightclub, the Plush Bunny, was often the venue but Peter's interests were wide ranging and included Joey Heatherton, remote-controlled airplanes and doing things at all hours of the night. Sunrise was only an indication that things were progressing satisfactorily.
On one occasion, I was following Peter on the freeway after we'd been to Matthew's house in Hacienda Heights. I was a few lengths back with the GTO in the number two lane and was suddenly aware that no one was driving Peter's California spider though it was setting the pace in the fast lane. I dropped into fourth and accelerated to draw next to the spider to find that, though Peter was not in the driver's seat, he was indeed in the car. He was lounging in the passenger seat enjoying the view as the Ferrari sped along being driven, apparently, by the invisible man. Peter had his left foot on the accelerator pedal and his left hand on the steering wheel out of view from other drivers including me. It was a hilarious sight and he drove like that for many miles before getting back behind the wheel. I still wonder if his leg was long enough to reach the brake pedal should it have been necessary.
On another occasion, Peter and I were heading south through Laurel Canyon. As we raced down the Hollywood side, we came upon a slower moving Mercedes-Benz SL. We were going fast enough that slowing down--at least in Peter's mind--was not an option. As we passed by the country market in the canyon, Peter went around the SL and had just enough room to pull back into the lane again before the blind curve at the end of the straight. Unfortunately, the move served to tighten the radius on the turn to such an extent that his Ferrari lost traction and the last sight I had was of the California spinning out as it rounded the curve.
What I expected to see as I came around the bend was Peter and his California wrapped around a tree. What I saw was Peter continuing to pull away from the Mercedes driving--freewheeling--backwards looking over his shoulder and negotiating the series of tight turns near the bottom of the canyon. No doubt the Mercedes driver had intended to impress his attractive passenger that evening. I wonder how impressed she might have been that he was beaten out by someone driving backwards down the canyon.
Peter captured a couple of our adventures with his 8mm camera (See video below). There were many more that escaped his lens, I am happy to say. His California spider painted as an Army jeep and his Ferrari Tour de France painted with tiger stripes were epic Peter Helm offerings along with the incident where a traffic cop cited Peter's passenger for speeding down Gower Street in Hollywood one night because he didn't realize Peter's Ferrari was right-hand-drive.
Peter worked on such films as The Longest Day and The Andromeda Strain being directed by Darryl F. Zanuck and Robert Wise. He is an aviation buff and my son and I visited a B17 with him at Camarillo Airport where we also got to see a B25J on which Peter crews and contributes his time for maintenance and repairs. The photo above was taken at one of my Wednesday night gatherings. On that occasion, Peter had Joey Heatherton in tow and she trumped some unwitting newcomer's story about Frank Sinatra with one of her own, as you might imagine.
Every time I see a certain scene in The Big Lebowski, I am reminded of Ottie, Peter's otter that went almost everywhere with him. My favorite Peter Helm anecdote is about the night Peter hit a bump at speed on Mulholland Drive causing the chassis to flex, the passenger door to open and the actress Tuesday Weld to be bounced out of the car. Does it get any better than that for a car guy?