Master Ed

updated 10/31/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 10/31/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

ED WOOD JR.'S FIRST MOVIE WAS TO have been a 1948 western called The Crossroads of Laredo. But after a few days of shooting, producer Crawford John Thomas decided he had no faith in his novice director-writer, and he killed the project. "Smartest thing I ever did," Thomas says now. "Ed was not a team player."

Nooooooooo, that he was not. More to the point, Ed Wood was...different. For one thing, Wood, who grew up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and wound up in Hollywood after traveling around the country with a carnival, was openly fond of cross-dressing, perfectly nonchalant on the set in angora sweater and blonde wig. (He had worn a red bra and panties under his Marine uniform while winning a Purple Heart in the Pacific in World War II.) And the half-dozen obscure feature films he directed in the '50s and '60s are about as nuttily iconoclastic as they come. Wood's films are spellbindingly dreadful to watch, like the ecstatic rush of lemmings to the sea. Your typical Wood epic was shot in four to 10 days, on a minuscule budget, with actors who were, by and large, only marginally professional. "Ed's work just hung there by spit and a dream," says Gregory Walcott, the embarrassed star of the laughably crummy zombie-alien epic Plan 9 from Outer Space, which—with its tombstones of cardboard and flying saucers made from hubcaps—is described by cognoscenti as the worst movie of all time.

And yet, as producer Thomas concedes, "it's better to be the world's worst director than not to be anybody at all." Given the rapturous critical reception of director Tim Burton's goofy movie valentine Ed Wood, the fabulously bad filmmaker—who was 54 and a penniless alcoholic when he died of a heart attack in 1978—won't ever be a nobody again. The movie, starring Johnny Depp in and out of angora, features hilarious re-creations of the making of Plan 9, Glen or Glenda (in which Wood played a burly transvestite) and Bride of the Monster. Even better, it captures the carnival atmosphere of the Fellini-esque crew at the heart of Wood's tilt-a-whirl universe. Key players included aging actor and morphine addict Bela Lugosi (played by Martin Landau); 400-pound wrestler Tor Johnson (George Steele); wannabe transsexual Bunny Breckinridge (Bill Murray); and Criswell (Jeffrey Jones), once The Tonight Show's guest psychic. "They all loved Wood," says Walcott. "He could talk people into things, painting a lustrous picture of grandeur."

Over the years, Lugosi, Johnson and Criswell have died, and the reclusive Breckinridge, in his 90s, is said to be sickly. But those who survive still speak of Wood with affection and, even now, head-shaking amazement.

What seduced Dolores Fuller were Wood's vibrant green eyes. "They would just talk to you," says Fuller, 71, who met Wood in 1952, when she answered a casting call for the film that ultimately became Glen or Glenda. In short order he moved in with her in Burbank. Fuller (played in Ed Wood by Sarah Jessica Parker) was able to support Wood with her modeling and small TV and movie roles, while he feverishly banged out scripts. In the evening, she recalls, "we'd have a glass of wine. He'd bounce ideas off me. And he'd ask if he could borrow my angora sweater." Even though she played Wood's sympathetic fiancée in Glen or Glenda, Fuller admits that she was never completely comfortable with Wood's cross-dressing. "But we were alone, and it was nobody's business," she says. "We were great teammates. Every film, I thought someone would realize his talent."

Finally, after three years, she understood that all she'd seen in those eyes were dreams. And she felt betrayed when Wood handed the female lead in Bride of the Monster to Loretta King, who had promised to finance the movie. "I decided to go on to better things than supporting Eddie," says Fuller. "I picked up and moved to New York."

Fuller, who had always had a knack for lyrics, eventually established a new career as a songwriter, penning "Rock-A-Hula Baby" for the 1961 Elvis movie Blue Hawaii. (She went on to write 17 other songs for the King.) Today she lives in Las Vegas with her husband of eight years, movie archivist Philip Chamberlin. "I've never looked back," says Fuller, "in anger or angora."

In her '50s incarnation as local TV horror-hostess Vampira, Lapland-born actress Maila Nurmi seemed a natural to star in Ed Wood pictures. But when Wood introduced himself at a party in 1954, Nurmi says, she felt nothing but disdain. "I was high-rolling in Hollywood," says Nurmi, now 72, "and I was quite full of myself." By the time he made Plan 9 in 1956, she was newly divorced and seriously unemployed, and the role of a woman brought back from the dead by aliens was, sadly, irresistible. "I was scraping by on $13 a week," says Nurmi (played in the movie by Lisa Marie). "I thought, 'Well, here I go. I'm going to commit professional suicide now' " Wood's dialogue, in fact, was so bad ("I couldn't even say it in the mirror") that Nurmi insisted on playing the part mute. His direction wasn't much more verbose. "He would simply say, 'Move over here,' or 'Can you scream now?' " she recalls.

Nurmi, who in 1989 unsuccessfully sued Elvira for stealing her act, today lives quietly in L.A. and describes herself as a "vivacious couch potato." She finds the renewed interest in Wood "incredibly strange." She didn't even get around to seeing Plan 9 until a local cinema screened it in 1980. "I was thrilled," she says, "because everybody was laughing hysterically."

"Something kept throwing us together," says the director's 72-year-old widow, Kathy Wood, who still lives in Los Angeles. Kathy, then a corporate secretary, first noticed her future husband's dashing profile in church in the mid-'50s. Soon afterward, she was at a restaurant, she recalls, "and I looked over, and there was this same man, crying. I said, 'Oh, that poor man.' " Ed stepped up to the table and assured her that he merely had a cold. "Eddie was always so dramatic and hokey," says Kathy, laughing. She was starstruck at meeting a moviemaker, even one as spectacularly obscure as Wood.

Kathy was delighted to join his freewheeling entourage. "Oh, it was crazy,' she says. "It was fun." But ask her about living with an impoverished director, unable to pay the rent, and she admits that life was "chaotic, up and down. Yet Eddie was never one to be glum for long." Toward the end, yes, "he would be morose, but he was in physical pain," says Kathy. After his death in 1978, she was overwhelmed by her own illnesses, including two heart attacks. "It was like oblivion," she says.

But then her husband started being rediscovered, first in 1980 in the Medved brothers' Golden Turkey Awards, a tongue-in-cheek paperback survey of atrocious movies, and now with Ed Wood. "This fame knocks me off my chair," says Kathy, who reportedly will receive a percentage of the new movie's merchandise sales.

When she met Depp one day during the film's shooting, Kathy says she was starstruck all over again. "I was tongue-tied," she says. "But it was the same with Eddie. He could charm anybody. He charmed me for the rest of my life."

TOM GLIATTO
LOIS ARMSTRONG in Los Angeles

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