From the Kibbutz to the Oscars - Charles Wessler’s Epic Road Trip

Charles Wessler never graduated from high school.

He moved to Israel – alone – at sixteen and lived on a series of kibbutzim.

Four years later, he went back to the United States and got his first jobs in the business movies via persistence and chutzpah.

He went on to produce nineteen movies, including hits like There’s Something About Mary, that have earned more than $1.5 billion worldwide.

This February, he stood on the stage at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood and received his first Oscar, for Green Book. He dedicated it to the late Carrie Fisher – his close friend since childhood.

In short, he’s had quite a journey.

I talked with him about it at the Jerusalem Film Festival, where he gave a master class sponsored by the Jerusalem Film & Television Fund.

The Slums of Beverly Hills

Wessler grew up in Encino, California, in London, and in what he calls “the slums” of Beverly Hills, where he shared a small two-bedroom apartment with his mother and three sisters.

He attended Beverly Hills High School, where his classmates included the children of movie stars and studio moguls.

He met Carrie Fisher when they were both 14. Her mother, the singer and actress Debbie Reynolds, would take the two teenagers along when she performed in Las Vegas.

Wessler and Fisher wrote to each other every week while he was in Israel, and also sent each other cassette tapes.

“Carrie would write letters from the set of Star Wars and say that she was working with walls of blue and animals called “wookies” and a bad guy named Darth Vader. AND she was told not to wear a bra. I thought, ‘OH shit, Carrie is screwed. She will never recover from this nightmare.’ I had NO IDEA.”

That correspondence, sadly, has been lost.

When he got back to the States, Wessler spent a year “screwing around,” as he puts it, then tried to get a job in the movie business. He would walk on to studio lots like he belonged there and knock on doors saying he was a PA (production assistant) – even though he had no actual experience.

He knocked on hundreds of doors before he finally got his chance. His first movie job, in 1977, was as a PA on a cheap sex comedy sequel called Can I Do It... 'Til I Need Glasses? His task was to “wet down the lesbian skin-divers.”

The film is best known for providing Robin Williams with his first movie role. His part initially ended up on the cutting room floor, but was restored after the Mork and Mindy TV show made him a star.

The producer of that movie opened a comedy club and hired Wessler to work there. Before Williams got his start in TV, he did standup at the club for $600 per week.

The Empire Strikes Back

Wessler had his eye on bigger and better movies – specifically, Star Wars.

The movie had come out in 1977 – around the time when Wessler was sponging down movie lesbians. Carrie Fisher, of course, played the iconic Princess Leia.

The Empire Strikes Back was already in development by November 1977, and Wessler desperately wanted to work on it. But he didn’t think it was right to trade on his relationship with Carrie Fisher – he thought that would be cheating.

So he wrote to Gary Kurtz, the producer. When he didn’t hear back, he wrote again – 30 letters in all.

Finally, he simply showed up at Kurtz’s office in London, acting like he already had a job.

Miraculously, he got one.

He also worked as a production assistant on the third Star Wars movie, The Return of the Jedi (1983), and on Blade Runner (1982).

Big

Wessler eventually decided he was more i