1943 - 2023
R.I.P. TOM JOYNER
by Christopher Priest
My colleague and friend Tom Joyner, who spent his life working in Hollywood, has passed away of heart failure, after a long battle with cancer. Although by the end of his career he was a senior executive, firstly at the Disney studio, then at Warner Bros as Vice President of Feature Production from 1990-1996, most of his time was on the set or in the studio, working behind the camera in the uniquely invaluable role as assistant director.
He started as a Directors Guild of America intern at Universal Studios, then was appointed 2AD (2nd Assistant Director) on Duel (1971) – Steven Spielberg’s first full-length feature. He worked on Spielberg’s next two films, The Sugarland Express (1974) and Jaws (1975), being promoted to 1AD for Jaws.
After this, in various crucial roles, partly technical and partly creative, as AD, unit production manager or executive producer, Tom worked on many of Hollywood’s classic box office successes. These included High Plains Drifter (1973), Jaws 2 (1978), The Blues Brothers (1980), Starman (1984), Against All Odds (1984), Tender Mercies (1983), The Color of Money (1986), Good Morning Vietnam (1987), Three Men and a Baby (1987), The Bodyguard (1992) and many more. He worked with several leading directors, among them Martin Scorsese, John Landis, John Carpenter, Barry Levinson and Clint Eastwood. In 1999, he received the DGA's Frank Capra Achievement Award for contributions to his profession and the Guild.
After leaving Warner Bros he went into semi-retirement, and it was during this time that he supported the director Rogelio Fojo in his film adaptation of my story The Stooge (2019). As a short film this would never achieve theatrical distribution, but it was shown at festivals around the world, picking up several commendations.
Tom was born in Oak Park, Illinois, to Major Battle Joyner and Laverne Lungren. His father’s work for TWA took Tom and his elder brother John to various cities around the world. After graduation Tom enlisted in the US Marine Corps, a period he felt formative for instilling in him a discipline that would help manage so many Hollywood dreams into realities. He said that working under a film director was as nothing, after assisting a Marine admiral.
After his military service, Tom studied English at Adams State College in Alamosa, Colorado, where he met the love of his life, Laura Diggs. They married in 1968 and had two children, Dawn and Christopher. His family all survive him.
Thomas Alan Joyner, film maker, born December 7, 1943, died February 22, 2023
TOM JOYNER’s hand
By Rogelio Fojo
He seemed like an invincible superhero, this ex-Marine turned Hollywood moviemaker, who survived cold wars and killer trucks and vengeful sharks and bouts of cancer and Covid. But the sheer volume of 80 years lived to the fullest was heavier than his now brittle bones and Tom Joyner peacefully sailed away on his final voyage. In the pre-dawn hours of Wednesday, February 22, 2023, he left us all standing here - at the Amity Island shores of the world - waving him our goodbyes with a void inside that is difficult to fill.
“Amity, as you know, means friendship.”
Tom Joyner may not be a household name, although his stature looms large in Hollywood. It is difficult to explain how this person who lived his life so anonymously, barking orders at his platoon of artists from the shadows behind the camera and pointing all spotlights in the direction of others, could affect so many people around the world. He accomplished this feat with his professional contribution to the art of cinema and, for the lucky ones close to him, with the embracing kindness of his heart.
I experienced both types of “Tom effects”: he transformed my life first as a teenager living in Uruguay with the electroshock of a single movie, a masterpiece that Tom created during a reunion of geniuses around the beaches of Martha's Vineyard, Massachussets, in the summer of 1974 (sounds familiar?). And finally, years later, offering me his invaluable friendship and guidance as a mentor in Los Angeles, California to make my own films. The fact that Tom ended his illustrious career (after three movies in collaboration with Steven Spielberg, five with Clint Eastwood, and a long etcetera) producing one of my own projects, fills me with pride and tears. Tom lent me a big hand, but I can still hear his beautiful voice, educated in the radio narrations and commercials of his youth, resonating forever on the soundtrack of “The Stooge.” And since this little film and the TV series coming out of it are all about magic & time travel... let me go magically back in time now.
Thomas Alan Joyner was born in Oak Park, Illinois, on December 7th, 1943. His father's work for TWA led the family to move often across the United States and to a few years living in Paris, allowing young Tom to travel and explore Europe, going as far as Greece and Egypt.
Upon graduation, Tom enlisted with the Marine Corps, a formative period he always remembered fondly. It instilled in him the discipline necessary to turn so many Hollywood's artistic dreams into logistic realities. And sailing for months around the islands of Japan and the Philippines developed in Tom the sea legs that one day would land him successfully on "Amity Island”. Meanwhile, his outstanding performance in the Navy promoted him to Admiral assistant, something that would also come in handy later for Tom, dealing with the civilian 'Admirals' of movie sets better known as “Directors.”
After three years serving with the Marines, Tom was discharged to go to college, in pursue of an English and Speech Theater major at Adam State College in Alamosa, Colorado. He did this transition with impecable timing: while getting involved in multiple plays and the campus radio station (where Tom discovered that his voice was his forte), he met in 1965 a fellow student named Laura Diggs. They fell in love and were married in July 31, 1968. Tom & Laura stayed together in a marriage that lasted a whole lifetime and produced two children: musician Chris and counselor Dawn Joyner.
In 1969, right after moving to California, a fortuitous stand-in job for actor Vance Johnson in the TV movie "Company of Killers" led Tom to an internship with the DGA-Producers Assistant Directors Training Program.
While Tom may not have noticed the pattern that was emerging already on his life, his journey through rough, shark-infested waters continued as a trainee in his 1970 debut film, “Barquero” (“Boatman.”) He has also commented on a DGA interview about his special appreciation for the role of the "Transportation Captain" on a set, whom Tom considered his own AD at 'base camp’. Tom’s character arc would reach its climax a few movies later, when he used all his Navy skills to help keep afloat a boat not-big-enough-to-hunt-down-great-white-sharks...
But in the meantime, with the support of his mentors, UPMs Wallace Worsley, Jr and William S. Gilmore, Tom found regular work as a 2nd Assistant Director for 1st AD Jim Fargo. One of these jobs was a humble road movie starring Dennis Weaver as a salesman being chased by a mad trucker. This TV movie would mark the splendid debut of director Steven Spielberg, barely two years younger than Tom. The combination of their still undiscovered talents resulted in the gem that turned out to be the movie “Duel”. Between this early masterpiece and the next one, Tom would continue to hone his AD work in TV episodes like “Bewitched," "The Partridge Family”... and a second film alongside Spielberg, the underrated but brilliant "The Sugarland Express.”
Next would come the industry rise of Tom Joyner as Spielberg's right hand man, now promoted to 1st. AD, in the creation of an iconic film that instilled panic in audiences all over the world.
A film that ruined summer for both Earth’s hemispheres and left beachgoers hysterically afraid to enter sea waters, lake waters, river waters, even swimming pool waters: “Jaws” remains a miracle of perfect craftsmanship in all its departments (from the unmatched chemistry of the main stars, to the unforgettable music in the soundtrack, to a US island location that somehow, psychologically and mythologically, represents all the beaches of the world.) Plus - under Tom's direction - with the stunning performance of innumerable local extras, professional and amateur actors that never fails to impress audiences as totally realistic... a believable background action that, had it not been for Tom Joyner, might have lessened the impact of the story told in the foreground by Spielberg and his lead actors.
Just think of (or rewatch) all those iconic scenes from the first half of the movie. The ones that ensure that audiences stay glued to the edge of their seats until the very end. The naturalistic chat around a campfire that opens the film. The tumultuous marching band parade through downtown streets, the controlled chaos of hundreds of bathers running at the beach, the arrival of a large ferry bringing summer tourists to celebrate the 4th of July at Amity Island!
Since there are already tons of articles, photos and videos about "Jaws" online (for those who seek more information about this “fish tale,”) I’ll move on and mention the other classic films that Tom gave us, ensuring through his meticulous work as AD, UPM, or Executive Producer, that they would be listed among the most memorable movies in American cinema: “High Plains Drifter,” “Jaws 2,” “More American Graffiti,” “Starman,” “Poltergeist II,” “Against All Odds”, “Tender Mercies,” “The Color of Money,” “Good Morning Vietnam”, “Three Men and a Baby,” “The Client,” “Doc Hollywood,” “The Bodyguard,” etc.
Thanks to his talent, professionalism and a long list of box office and critical hits, Tom rose to the top of the Hollywood industry. First as Executive Production Manager for Walt Disney Pictures (1985-1987) and later Vice President of Feature Production at Warner Bros. (1990-1996). Finally, Tom Joyner received the DGA's Frank Capra's Achievement Award for contributions to his profession and his guild.
Now, let me leave all that Hollywood success aside and focus instead in recalling a couple of anecdotes that I personally experienced with Tom. I think they speak clearly of his kindness and humanity.
Unaware of all these film precedents, I met Tom and Laura at a party, where we engaged in a discussion about horror movies. Ha! Laura claimed the best one was Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” I replied that it was actually “Jaws”. Then she dropped the bomb: her husband Tom agreed with me, and he should know, because he was the First Assistant Director of Steven Spielberg in my beloved movie. As you can imagine, my own jaws dropped to the floor. Before I could say a word, my friend Michael called from the living room to announce that his TV set was ready, “to play Rogelio’s first short film.”
My stomach and heart sunk to the floor as I remembered the main reason for my presence there. I sat literally trembling, chills going up and down my spine, during the whole 20 minutes of my first attempt at filmmaking, realizing that it would be judged by none less than the maker of the “Jaws” masterpiece.
But, to my surprise, inspiration, encouragement and ‘the beginning of a wonderful friendship’, Tom expert, understanding, kind and supportive eyes saw right through all the clumsy, amateurish mistakes of my first film. He said that he had enjoyed it very much, and asked me to please continue sharing with him any followup work. I certainly did and Tom certainly helped me make progress! One day, he even accepted to collaborate with me on a more ambitious film called “The Stooge” and a spin off TV series called “One Million Times”. I specially wanted all my background scenes to look as perfect as the ones in “Jaws”! And my new little film - a story about magicians performing on a stage in front of a large audience - would live or die on the audience reaction shots alone.”
Looking for producers to finance this film, Tom came along with me to all studio meetings. I saw first hand how his respected stature in Hollywood opened doors and gave the project the push it needed.
Another memory comes from a “Jaws” anniversary screening. Tom introduced me to some fellow past crew members, the magicians who built “Bruce the Shark” and made it the scary monster that we all know and love. I saw Art Director Joe Alves and Special Mechanic Effects Roy Arbogast smile and nod like kids holding a naughty secret, agreeing with Tom that the shark film... ‘still holds’. Duh!
A final image that comes to mind is of Tom and I sitting in his car, listening to the music tracks of his son Chris Joyner debut CD, that Tom had brought me for “soundtrack consideration.” He looked like a very proud papa, indeed! Going through this memory and all these unforgettable experiences that I lived with Tom, I can’t still wrap my head around the notion of that South American kid sitting in a darkened theater, reading on the big screen the name of Tom Joyner on the closing credits of “Tiburón”... with me in the present, listening to his son Chris on the phone, offering me...ME!... the inimaginable honor of writing this obituary for his father!
This has been long enough.
I want to leave you here with a sound rising up from the ocean’s depths. A sound so loud that nobody forgets the passage of this spectacular man through our Earth. Tom was a people’s person. The company of other people was what he enjoyed most of his work in the movies. So please, gather around in this virtual Town Hall, quiet your voices. Let me share a final, treasured secret with you. It’s about an iconic scene in “Jaws”, one that IMDB lists as a ‘continuity error.’ The Robert Shaw character, Captain Quint, makes a memorable entrance, appearing in front of a clean blackboard to offer his services to the town of Amity. A moment later, another shot shows Quint sitting in front of a man-eating shark drawing on the chalkboard that was not there a second before and has just magically appeared. Well... Tom told me what happened: a creative idea emerged on the set after actor Robert Shaw had already left for the day, for a close-up shot. A stunt hand was urgently needed to scrape its fingers over that drawing. Who provided that expert, method-acting hand?
“Well... this was not a boat accident. It wasn’t any propeller, it wasn’t any coral reef and it wasn’t Jack the Ripper."
It was the 1st. AD!
It was Tom Joyner’s hand.
In a perfect movie like “Jaws”, there are no ‘continuity errors’, just gifts from the Universe, synchronicity events, happy accidents... or the hand of God.
So yes, I’d love to end this long rant with the sound of nails scratching on a chalkboard, so everybody turns their heads and pause to remember the not too famous name of Tom Joyner. But I won’t do that. Instead, I’ll leave you with the sad news that this great man has just passed away in the hospital, from a heart failure due to the complications of kidney cancer, as it was posted by the love of his life, Laura: “He fought an amazing battle, the Marine that he was and never gave in, and yesterday when I visited with him we sang two songs and I moved on to a third, at the end he let me know he was leaving with a quiet smile!”
Peace, love and blessings, our dear Tom.
Thomas Alan Joyner, film maker, born December 7, 1943, died February 22, 2023