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It was the summer of 1982, in Rome. I was an extra in Sergio Leone's epic, Once Upon a Time in America. Robert DeNiro and James Woods were the main stars. During the last week of June, I rode out to the movie set on the outskirts of Rome each day, ready for a day of shooting. But despite my initial expectations, being an extra in a movie wasn't too glamorous. Squeezed into a tuxedo that felt like a suit of cardboard, I was boiling hot. For much of my 12-hour day I stood around waiting, until interminable preparations were done and cameras were ready to roll.
The movie set was a giant old speakeasy, and we spent the week filming a party scene celebrating the end of Prohibition. The set was filled with music, and Champagne corks were popping from colorful magnums. There were lots of "movie gangsters" such as myself in the scene--along with DeNiro and Woods.
All week, we toiled away at the speakeasy scene. But despite all the sweat, it was still fun to watch these big names do their jobs. I stood just a few feet from DeNiro and Woods as they acted out their parts for the cameras, Woods giving a toast, DeNiro somber at the bar.
By the end of this long, grueling week, we extras were exhausted, but somehow still exhilarated. On the Friday evening that ended my little bit in the film, one of the extras brought along some Italian cigars, called toscanos, to celebrate. Most of the big stars had long since retreated to their villas or their rented Rome apartments, except for James Woods. He wandered over and joined us for a while, chatting amiably as we puffed away, obviously enjoying the company. We sat outside the set, in our tuxedos, in the cool early evening of the Rome summer, smoking our cigars, talking about Italy, about America, about the movies.
I had never really smoked cigars before, and the cigar I puffed on that evening in Rome wasn't a gem. But in that setting, surrounded by friends and new acquaintances, I savored it much more than I thought I would.
And what ever became of our movie? After much infighting between Sergio Leone and the studio about its four-hour length, Once Upon a Time in America was finally released in 1984. It wasn't really ever given a fair hearing by the critics or the public. I still think it's an underrated movie, with particularly strong performances by Woods and DeNiro. But back on that lovely summer evening in Rome, we weren't thinking about all that. We were too busy savoring our cigars and drinking in the scene.
I wasn't a cigar smoker before that, but I became one. Thank you, Marvin, and thank you, James Woods.
Massapequa, New York
Joseph S. King (Cigar Aficionado, "Out of the Humidor," May/June 1997) claims that cigar smokers inhibit his right to breathe fresh, unpolluted air. Well, Mr. King, have you ever considered that by driving a car you are emitting very noxious fumes that are far more detrimental to one's health than cigar smoke? I, for one, am nauseated by internal combustion engine-produced pollution and have no choice but to endure it if I take a walk, especially in the big city. On the other hand, smoke wafting from cigars does not irritate me in the slightest.
Mr. King, before you tell me, a moderate cigar smoker, to forgo my puros whenever I, purportedly, impact on the health of others, I suggest you give up your car and, to demonstrate further your concern for fresh, unpolluted air, that you campaign to eliminate cars from city centers and have them replaced by trams and other environmentally friendly rail transport.
Since your emotionally charged missive appeals to objectivity and fairness, you can hardly be applying these standards to yourself if you fail to take the above challenge, and thus your invective would be revealed for what it is--the proverbial house of cards.
Oh, by the way, Mr. King, I have never possessed a motorcar.
Zenon S.J. Kuzik
Wanganui, New Zealand
A few months ago I received an invitation to my high school reunion just as my wife announced that she and her friends were headed to Mexico for a vacation the same weekend. Since Duke University had been asking me, a plastic surgeon, to be a guest lecturer, I decided to attend the reunion, which would be held in a giant National Guard armory in my hometown in North Carolina, a short drive from the Duke campus. Since North Carolina was a tobacco state, I left my flask behind but brought cigars.
My wife and I run a longhorn cattle dude ranch in the Hill country near San Antonio, so I decided to wear my usual western jeans, Lucchese boots and jacket and, of course, one of the cleaner cowboy hats. The reunion went quite well (although I kept thinking that so many of my classmates could have used my services). I lit up a cheroot and leaned back against the wall to talk to old friends, when there was tap on my back.
"Sir, are you going to smoke cigars all night?"
"Yes, ma'am, I certainly am."
"Well, if you do that, some of us will have to leave."
"Well, ma'am, I am sure sorry to hear that, but if you gotta go, you gotta go!"
There was only North Carolina-type beer (not even a good Texas brand), but the conversation kind of made the evening.
Tolbert S. Wilkinson, M.D.
San Antonio, Texas
I have been meaning to write about an incident that occurred this past summer. My wife, sister-in-law, brother-in-law and myself went to New York City for four days as a finish to our vacation back east. We stayed at the Marriott, which by the way is a cigar-friendly hotel. After a long day of shopping and walking the streets of New York, we went back to the hotel. My brother-in-law and myself went to the lounge area, while our wives went up to the room. Matter of fact, I couldn't wait to smoke one of the cigars I purchased that day and have a cold beer. We chose a table, right next to the unoccupied piano, which was away from the other people as to not "offend" them with my smoking. While we were there the piano player arrived and began to play. I myself was very relaxed, enjoying my smoke and conversing with my brother-in-law. I was not paying attention to the music being played until my brother-in-law advised me to listen to what song was being directed at me. The piano player sitting in the direction of my smoke was playing "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." Needless to say I did not appreciate his sarcasm, but we remained until I finished my cigar.
I've had the trip of a lifetime to Cuba. I found the people to be among the nicest and warmest that I've ever met. And one thing about a communist system--the education system sees that everyone is literate and, in most cases, bilingual. When the date comes that the insanity ceases and we reestablish our trade relations--look out. These people will work and be able to read the schematic!
There are so many memories that space precludes mentioning many, but here are a few. We stayed at the Riviera. The water was unreliable, there were no safe deposit boxes and the rooms were a little shabby, to say the least. However, after leaving a bag of candy and a few dollars for room service, it was amazing to see all my dirty clothes washed and hung up on the drapery rods in the room! A letter of gratitude was also there, which I'll always enjoy.
Our personal tour of the José Martí (H. Upmann) factory was remarkable. At first we were informed there were no tours. As factory manager Benito Molina Menendez was leaving for lunch, we managed to talk to him a moment and were soon in his office drinking espresso and receiving gifts of Montecristo No. 4s from his desk. After some coffee, pictures and handshakes, Mr. Menendez turned us over to Joaquin R. Gomez Yera. Mr. Gomez Yera gave us a step-by-step tour and explanation of each and every process in the manufacture of various sizes and shapes of H. Upmanns. After the tour we walked around the corner of the Partagas factory and Montecristos store for an afternoon of mojitos (a Cuban drink) and great conversation.
The afternoon slipped away and we made arrangements to have dinner with Mr. Gomez Yera and his very beautiful and charming wife at the Hotel Nacional. Since our knowledge of Spanish was very limited and Mr. and Mrs. Gomez Yera's English was the same, we managed to enlist the receptionist at the Nacional phone desk to act as an interpreter. She did a splendid job throughout the meal, dessert and of course, the wonderful cigars provided by Mr. Gomez Yera. As we parted company, we were given handmade commemorative plaques containing bands and labels from the 150th anniversary year of the H. Upmann Co., signed with best regards by Mr. Gomez Yera. A very memorable night.