The Hollywood Captain

Screen Break: Elvis and Mary Tyler Moore share a joke with director William A Graham on the set of Change of Habit

Screen Break: Elvis and Mary Tyler Moore share a joke with director William A Graham on the set of Change of Habit


The captain of the Alerion is not happy. I have, he says, grossly distorted his arrival into port.

“I was not towed into the harbour,” he says sternly, addressing me in a soft American accent from on deck. “We had engine trouble and I was escorted in as a precaution.”

Such nuances are important on an island where boats are part of the fabric of day-to-day life.

The fact that my information came directly from the Lerwick harbour master, and that it was contained in a single-paragraph buried deep inside The Shetland Times were not to be considered mitigating circumstances, he warns me.

There is a pause as I consider my response. Then a smile cracks over his tanned face, pushing his glasses higher up his nose.

“Well, the least you can do to make amends is come aboard and have some dinner.”

And so I meet Billy Graham and his crew aboard the 42-foot Alerion.

Around the small, teak dining table is Billy, his wife Janet, her impossibly beautiful sister Pam and a taciturn helicopter pilot who flew in Vietnam and whose name I never quite get.

It transpires that they are part way through an epic journey around the world, punctuated by return trips to the US for work.

It also transpires that the Alerion is a floating Hollywood enclave.

For Billy is better known as William A Graham, a film-maker who is credited with directing Elvis Presley’s last film, Change of Habit, and a host of early classic American TV shows such as The Fugitive, Checkmate, Dr Kildare and Naked City. Naked City is a personal favourite: “There are eight million stories in the Naked City, this has been one of them…”

Janet, who is charming and patient, is an actress and producer as is Pam. Helicopter guy also flies for the movies.

Just a few months into my career in journalism, I am in awe. For the next four days I practically move in with them, absorbing Hollywood stories and pretending I have a chance at capturing Pam’s heart.

Billy talks briefly of the challenges with Elvis’s hairstyle and how – of all those he has worked with over the years – Elvis was one of the nicest.

But he is most passionate about his journey and his family. He is not a Hollywood glamour type, preferring these excursions to discover the world outside California. Sailing is clearly in his blood.

Billy and Janet live in Malibu, California and, whenever they have a break, they return to wherever the Alerion is moored and continue their journey around the world. Sometimes it is for just a few weeks, at others it is for longer. Sometimes they have guests, at others it is just the two of them.

This time they have sailed up from France.

On their final day in port, they invite me to join them at a party someone is having on the island of Bressay across the harbour from Lerwick. I accompany them to the Ferry, the last of the evening, but inexplicably decline.

But clearly the ferryman sees the confusion in my face because seconds after casting off, he returns the vessel and lowers the gangway to give me another chance. Pam is urging me to jump aboard. She is joined by the rest of the passengers.

Despite this classic ‘Hollywood’ moment and my inner voice yelling ‘do it!’ I remain on the pier and wave the ferry off.

To this day I still do not know what made me say no – and to this day it is probably one of my only regrets.





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