Rarely seen movie about rocker Meat Loaf coming to L-Dub Film Fest, thanks to the late Franne Lee
Lee, a beloved Lake Worth Beach artist who died Aug. 27 at age 81, was the costume and production designer for “Dead Ringer,” a fictional comedy built around footage from Meat Loaf’s 1981-82 North American tour. The film took its name from Meat Loaf’s follow up album to his smash 1977 debut “Bat Out of Hell, which spawned the iconic hits “Two out of Three Ain’t Bad” and “Paradise By the Dashboard Light.’’
Starring a musician who by 1982 had established himself as one of rock’s biggest acts, the movie seemed destined for box-office success.
But an arcane legal fight involving Meat Loaf, his writing partner Jim Steinman and their record company prevented the film from ever being properly released.
Nicholls, thanks to a stipulation in his contract, was able to resurrect his personal print of the film and make a digitized version with help from the movie’s original editor, Norm Smith.
Forty years after it was made, “Dead Ringer” is finally starting to reach a wider audience through festival screenings hosted by Nicholls for no profit.
Made with Meat Loaf’s 1981 album of the same name, the movie debuted in 2022 at film festivals in Maine and Vermont. The L-Dub Film Festival will be its third festival screening and only screening in Florida.
And it might not have happened if not for Lee, the movie’s costume and production designer.
“Franne set up this whole screening,’’ Nicholls said. “She is the reason I got together with (festival director) Charlie Birnbaum to do this screening.’’
Lee had been looking forward to seeing the film for the first time and sharing the stage with Nicholls, a friend since the late 1970s. She was scheduled to introduce the movie and then participate in a question-and-answer session after the screening.
Nicholls said he was “devastated” when he got news that Lee passed away late last month.
“I am so sad because this was going to be our little reunion,’’ he said.
She will be there in spirit, he said, because he plans to shower tributes on Lee during the Q-&-A.
“She is responsible for the look of that film. I’ll take a little bit of credit,’’ he said with a laugh, “but she's got all the rest.’’
Nicholls first met Lee when visiting the set of “NBC’s Saturday Night” in the first years after the late-night comedy show debuted in 1975. (It was later renamed “Saturday Night Live.”)
Lee and her then-husband, Eugene Lee, were part of the original crew, with Franne doing the costumes for memorable characters like the Killer Bees, Blues Brothers and Coneheads, and Eugene designing the sets.
“I was an early friend of Saturday Night Live as I was a Broadway performer in (the musical) Hair,’’ said Nicholls, a Montreal native who now lives in Vermont. “We used to go watch the show and go to the after-parties. So I met Franne and Eugene there. I loved the way they worked and I loved her energy specifically.’’
After working SNL’s first five seasons, Franne left to pursue other projects.
Meanwhile, Nicholls was collecting acting credits, including roles in “Nashville,” the sports comedy “Slap Shot”, and “Popeye.” He also became a protégé of director Robert Altman, working as co-writer on two Altman films, “A Wedding” and “A Perfect Couple.” He was nominated for both a British Academy of Film and Television Arts and Writers Guild of America award for his writing on the 1978 film “A Wedding.”
(Nicholls would later work on a slew of films in the ‘80s and ‘90s, including a stint as a first assistant director on the Oscar-winning “Dead Man Walking.”)
Around 1981, he said, Meat Loaf asked him to direct some music videos for his album “Dead Ringer.” Nicholls and Meat Loaf had known each other since their days years earlier as cast members of Hair.
As Nicholls and Meat Loaf worked on concepts for the videos, Nicholls got the idea of making a feature movie, a comical look at the life of a rock star. The movie also tells the story of a dead ringer Meat Loaf lookalike, a twin who happens to be the rock star’s biggest fan. The lookalike character is named Marvin, an ode to Meat Loaf’s birth name (Marvin Lee Aday). Meat Loaf plays both himself and Marvin.
“Dead Ringer” was Nicholls’ first project as a lead director, which gave him freedom to hire his cast and crew. Franne Lee — who designed costumes for singer Paul Simon’s 1980 movie “One Trick Pony” — “was my first choice and my first call,’’ he said.
“I just had a feeling from the days when I was visiting Saturday Night Live that she had an energy that was unbound. You couldn't tie her down.’’
Lee hit it off with Meat Loaf, cinematographer Don Lenzer and other key crew members, all working seamlessly together to achieve the same creative vision, Nicholls recalled.
“Franne is just great at sourcing costumes,’’ he said. “It was her style that she brought to the table, and she also brought a few kind of her own little cynical jabs at Saturday Night Live for not, I don't think, giving her enough credit for what she did.’’
Nicholls said he is reluctant to elaborate too much on Lee’s “cynical jabs” because he doesn’t want to spoil the movie for those who haven’t seen it. But he said certain “Dead Ringer” characters are dressed to resemble certain characters Lee dressed in Saturday Night Live.
“It was her way of tributing her own work and calling attention to something she was proud of, which was great,’’ Nicholls said.
She also was in charge of finding shooting locations, which included spots in New Jersey, Meat Loaf’s offices on Riverside Drive in New York City, the West Chester Playhouse in New York and Meat Loaf’s backyard in Connecticut.
“She was so diligent in finding the right locations for us to shoot and finding the right things for people to wear and the right look for everything,’’ Nicholls said.
When production ended, Lee turned her attention to other projects that would guide her career, perhaps unaware of the legal mess that prevented “Dead Ringer” from getting a proper release and reaching a wide audience.
Lee, who won Tony awards, went on to work in several theater productions and movies with established superstars like Al Pacino and Christopher Walken and also with aspiring actors in small community shows.
She eventually moved to Lake Worth Beach, where she got involved at the Lake Worth Playhouse. She was updating her resume one day a few years ago when she reached out to Nicholls for help.
“She called me and said, ‘Allan, I can't get a proper IMDb reading on ‘Dead Ringer’ for my credits.’ I said, ‘That's because the film has never been released,’’’ he recalled.
“She also said, ‘I’d love to see the film one day. I'm living in Lake Worth and there’s a film festival here.’’’
After Steinman died in April 2021 and Meat Loaf died in early 2022, Nicholls started thinking about “Dead Ringer.” He reached out to Norm Smith, the original editor, about making a digital print, which wound up being used in the movie’s long overdue debut at the Maine International Film Festival in July 2022.
By then, Lee had already put Nicholls in touch with Birnbaum, the L-Dub Film Festival director, and began planning the “Dead Ringer” screening in Lake Worth Beach for this coming Sunday.
Nicholls also made a new movie poster, with Lee’s name prominently displayed.
“We were so excited about her seeing it,’’ he said. “I sent her the poster which has her name big and bold in the credits, which is what she always wanted because we never made a poster before because it never came out.’’
But in mid-August, Lee fell ill and spent two weeks at JFK Medical Center before passing away.
Lee, whose passing is acknowledged in the film festival website, will be honored during the film screening Sunday. The start time, originally scheduled for 2 p.m., has been moved to 1 p.m. to allow for a full hour of discussion during the Q-and-A, whose participants will include Nicholls and Daniel Eilola, the playhouse’s artistic director.
A larger celebration of life ceremony for Lee is being planned for October at the Lake Worth Playhouse.
“Lots of people want to honor her and pay their respects and remember her,’’ Birnbaum said. “That’s why we’re going to put on a second event.’’
Details are being worked on and will be announced in the coming weeks.
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About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.