Mark L. Lester

Active - 1935 - 2022  |   Born - Nov 26, 1948   |   Genres - Action, Thriller, Crime, Science Fiction

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Biography by Bruce Eder

Mark L. Lester is either an exploitation director of modest talent and somewhat elevated taste, or one of the shrewdest political filmmakers ever to set foot in Hollywood. For those who only know his work on pictures like Truck Stop Women, Gold of the Amazon Women, Roller Boogie, or Class of 1999, he probably seems like the former, but for anyone who's followed his career from the beginning, when he was making movies that won prizes at the Venice Film Festival, there's no question that he's a serious filmmaker. Lester was born in Cleveland, OH, and raised in the San Fernando Valley, in the suburbs of Los Angeles. His interests in college centered far more on politics than filmmaking, and in 1968 he was chairman of California Youth for Senator Eugene McCarthy -- it was from those beginnings that the direction of his career, if not the career itself, became apparent. Lester turned to filmmaking after graduating from California State University at Northridge with a degree in political science. He headed to San Francisco with the idea of making movies which contained significant political and social statements. By that time, he had become a voracious moviegoer and watcher, and had seen several thousand movies dating from the silent era to the most recent releases. His idol was director/producer Howard Hawks, not only for his stylistic attributes, but also because Hawks was a filmmaker who couldn't be pegged to a single particular genre -- he made comedies, Westerns, dramas, action-adventure stories, and even science fiction, and all of it was acclaimed by critics and the public alike. Lester started his professional career with a documentary about the police, but his first full-length movie was a documentary entitled Twilight of the Mayas (1971), for which he spent six months living in Mexico; the film won the top prize for a documentary at the 1971 Venice Film Festival. He next wrote, produced, and directed Tricia's Wedding, a parody of the Nixon White House starring the satiric cabaret troupe the Cockettes. The mixing of political satire and a cast made up mostly of actors in drag was, in and of itself, a daring political statement at the time, and the movie -- which became an underground favorite and a hit on the "midnight movie" circuit -- put Lester on the cutting edge of new American filmmakers. In 1973, Lester released Steel Arena -- which he wrote, produced, and directed himself -- a movie about the people who make their livings pushing cars (and themselves) to the limit in demolition derby exhibitions. The movie was a success and also garnered enthusiastic reviews from Rolling Stone and other magazines, whose writers saw the movie's originality and bold approach to its subject as groundbreaking. With that film to his credit, Lester jumped into the profitable exploitation cinema field with Truck Stop Women (1974), a good-natured action thriller starring ex-Playboy Playmate Claudia Jennings, about a group of women who use their truck stop as a front for hijackings and prostitution, and have to fight for their survival when organized crime tries to take over their operation. Then it was back to his political roots in 1975 with White House Madness, a satirical look at Washington politics in the era of Watergate. By this time, Lester had organized his own production company, Mark L. Lester Films. In 1976, Lester made Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw, a violent action feature co-starring a pre-Wonder Woman Lynda Carter and evangelist-turned-actor Marjoe Gortner in a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde-type crime story, with a clever script by Vernon Zimmerman. In 1977, Lester released Stunts (aka Who Is Killing the Stuntmen?), a thriller about a company making an action-adventure film that proved exciting to audiences and absorbing to mainstream critics, who were now acknowledging Lester as one of the most talented and daring low-budget filmmakers in America. Ironically, despite the praise that he received for the best of these movies during the 1970s, he never moved up to the top rank of new directors, mostly because his work was confined to relatively low-budget productions and to genres that didn't get the full attention of film section editors or play very long in theaters. Instead, it was the contemporaries of Lester's, including George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, who emerged to prominence behind movies like Jaws, American Graffiti, and Star Wars, with the backing of major studios. Lester might not have had a Close Encounters of the Third Kind in him, but at the point where Spielberg was doing The Sugarland Express or Duel, he and Lester were peers and a good match to each other. Lester did move up a rung in industry commercial "legitimacy" when he graduated to made-for-television features, with Gold of the Amazon Women, starring Anita Ekberg, Bo Svenson, and Donald Pleasence. In 1979, he returned to theatrical exploitation fare with Roller Boogie, a quickie feature intended to cash in on the (very) short-lived roller-disco phenomenon, starring Linda Blair. By the early '80s, Lester had begun producing as well as directing, most notably on Tobe Hooper's chiller The Funhouse (1981). He was back directing again on Class of 1984 (1982), a sort of update of Blackboard Jungle about violence and delinquency in American high schools; that movie was Lester's most controversial of his whole career, capturing onscreen the worst fears of parents and politicians and disturbing critics, even as it enjoyed a successful presentation at the Cannes Film Festival. It also elicited a strongly positive review from Roger Ebert at the time, who waxed enthusiastic about both the movie and the filmmaker in the Chicago Sun-Times. The movie subsequently became a theatrical hit and has endured as a popular feature on cable television. Then came Firestarter, a Dino de Laurentiis production based on Stephen King's book, which Lester directed in 1984, with an all-star cast and a large budget. He followed this in 1985 with Commando, a more conventional action-adventure yarn starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rae Dawn Chong, which he made for 20th Century Fox. And, for a change of pace, Lester tried his hand at comedy with Armed and Dangerous (1986), which came as a sort of poor man's Police Academy, starring John Candy. The following year, Lester went into partnership with producer John Davis on the joint financing of his movies. He returned to writing and producing as well as directing with Class of 1999 (1990), a distant follow-up to Class of 1984 with a more satiric edge and a science-fiction twist. Lester continued as a busy director-producer of action-adventure films, both theatrical (Extreme Justice, Blowback, etc.) and occasionally for television (Guilty As Charged).

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