William Norton Film Producer, Irish Republican Socialist and International Revolutionary
The bulk of the interview can be read at: jeffcramer.blogspot.com/2010/01/very-candid-conversation-with-william.html
JC: Okay. Now we come to the next chapter in your life, the gun smuggling days. Talk about that.
WN: Ellie and I had been in support groups for the Central American people and Guatemala. Anyhow, a woman came to the door, and just looking at her and talking briefly with her, I got the impression that she was an ex-nun, or she was a nun wearing civilian clothes. So I assumed from this lady that she just had the look and attitude that she came from that religious kind of background.
Anyhow, she asked me if I would help in the purchase and shipment of arms for Guatemala. She told me the name of the group and I’ve forgotten it. But anyhow, it was the Guatemala revolutionary group. So we went out in the backyard, and I said, “Let’s go talk out here.” So that was the first time I purchased guns.
The way you do it, you got to one of these gun shows and she was the one who had the suggestion where you look in the newspaper for guns for sale, and if it seems logical, then you purchase it and put it in the trunk of your car and so on. You go to the gun show out at Pomona, where there’s a big fairgrounds building, and there’s a whole bunch of people with tables, and they’re all selling guns to each other- hunters and whatever, shotguns and rifles and pistols, etc. The groups will have a certain small number of weapons that they wish to purchase. They don’t want just random things. They liked the AR-15, which is an American automatic. It’s a semi-automatic, meaning you pull the trigger, and you get one shot. Then you pull the trigger again and you get another one. A full automatic weapon is one where you pull the trigger and it keeps shooting in automatic fire. Well, this AR-15 and AR-16 are American weapons that American people would sell to each other and buy, and so on. They would just pull the trigger once and it shoots once. But they, then, did some kind of small amount of work, and they would convert it into a fully automatic one. The Latin American groups wanted just a few, let’s see, like a revolver pistol instead of an automatic because the revolver doesn’t jam as much. The same thing, ultimately, was true of the Irish; they would have a certain specified type of weapons that they would want and not others.
Anyhow, I started doing it a bit, going to the gun shows, and then I would meet in a certain parking lot where a guy in a pickup truck would be, and I would recognize him because he’s got fishing poles and so on. And the reason he had that was that pickup truck would then have weapons concealed in the sides of the truck body or the bottom of the truck body. And the fellow’s name was John. He seemed like a school teacher kind of guy. (But this is interesting, he was a Basque, and the Basque people have a revolutionary tradition. They had an arms struggle in their own country against the Spanish government, so that the Basque region would be independent.) So this fellow that I knew, that I’d seen, met every once in a while in a parking lot of a certain restaurant or a certain place, I’d take the four or five guns out of the trunk, my trunk, and then he’d put them in his pickup and they’d be out of sight under fishing gear. Anyhow, I did that, or Ellie and I both did that, for Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, supplied weapons and also money.
And then, in our travels, we participated with the hunger striker people of the Irish movement, and one time I was taken to a prison as a relative to visit a prisoner. The prisoner comes in; he’s all long haired and clothed in a blanket. That was a spectacular visual. We became involved in the Irish struggle for equal rights for people in Ireland and civil rights and housing.
I was working at Disney on contract to do whatever the hell they wanted me to do. Yet Ellie and I were gonna retire because by that time, I was sixty, and I could get a Writers Guild pension of a meager sort, but enough to live on. We were going to move to Belfast and participate in that struggle over there, which we did. When we were over there, a fellow that we had known there wanted us to purchase and transport arms for, not for the IRA, but for the Irish National Liberation Army, as a project for self defense.
JC: I’m sorry, what’s the difference between the IRA and them?
WN: They are related, actually. The origin of the INLA was a socialist guy named Costello. The IRA, Irish Republican Army, was non-political. They did not want to get mixed up in this socialism.
The fellow that wanted us to buy arms for the INLA came over and was in charge. He told us to purchase a pickup camper, and then arrange in the compartments of the back of the pickup, a narrow space, 15 rifles and 20 pistols. You would ship that by boat over to France or to Holland. The first load we did went to Holland and then, we’d go over there as vacationers, and we were going to travel around Europe and go to Ireland. That was our story, that we were American vacationers, and then the guns would be unloaded in Ireland at some specific place out in the boondocks. So when we unloaded the weapons, it was a little dodgy because the wrong guy showed up when we were supposed to unload them. Then, another guy got into our vehicle, and he was giving us directions where to go. But we finished that first shipment successfully.
After a while, we were asked to do it again. We had questions about him, but we went on the second trip. On the second trip, we were to pick up the vehicle, with its hidden guns on it, in France, this time. When we walked into the shipping office, there is the cops. So that was the end of our career as gun runners.
We were in prison and waited around for the trial. There was a women’s part of the prison, where Ellie was, and the men’s part. I began a project where I wrote letters to the Pope and everyone- the president and senators and congressmen and government officials all over hell- trying to talk about the right of self defense of the republican people in the north of Ireland. I had traced the origins of the Catholic right to self defense doctrine, and it was this guy that I’ve forgotten the name of, and he replied, “Well, yeah, I can see your religious point of view here, but that does not give you the right to smuggle guns to the IRA.” The response that I got from a variety of letters in many countries was respectful and reasonable and so on.
JC: But none of them came to your defense?
WN: No, no. Well, I didn’t really want them to do that because I pitched all of this not because we were in prison, but rather in support of the principles of Irish self-determination and I didn’t want to say, “Oh, I’m in jail.” I never thought in that area, but I wrote to all kinds of countries and all kinds of religious people.
Ellie and I were sentenced to four years. Then, on an appeal, it was reduced to two years. My son had come over to see the trial, and it was wonderful to see him. We did our best to center around this question of self-determination and the right to self-determination, which I believe in.
When we were released, we were going to be sent back to Chicago, where the FBI was going to try us for having purchased the guns in the United States. By that time, one of the other ladies that was arrested with us, Susan had gone to the embassies or the consulates of Nicaragua in Ireland, and also in Paris, and finally, at the last moment, the permission came through that we could get visas to go to Nicaragua rather than being deported to Chicago and the FBI. So we were very happy about that.
When we lived there in Nicaragua, there would be the Contra movement, who’d be shooting around at night around different places. You’d just hear it. We purchased a house there that the El Salvador movement used to store food for their activist movement. Eventually, we gave it to the El Salvador people; they were going to use it as an orphanage for refugees.
People would come around to the house and set fires. Ellie and I would alternate being on guard at night, just keeping watch. One night, three guys came to the door with what looked like petitions, and they were talking to me, and boom, they pulled out guns and robbed me. Ellie was away at the market or something. But there, I’m tied up on the floor with these guys with guns, and I’m thinking, “How in the hell did I wind up here?” But they didn’t do any violence; they just robbed the house and then left.
Then, another time, Ellie was keeping watch; she told me that there was a noise outside. I took out a Kalashnikov, which is like an AR-50. I went into a bedroom that had been a guest room. I opened the door and I saw a guy, a shadow of a figure at the window, starting to come in there. It was a Contra. Just like a reflex action, I put one in him, and hit him right in the head, and that was the end of that Contra. Then the police came, and our El Salvador friend intervened, so there were no consequences to it.
After Ortega lost the election, and the Contras had full sway, I thought, “We ought to get out of Nicaragua.” Through our El Salvador friend, we got permission to go to Cuba, where I thought there wouldn’t be Contras roaming around and breaking into your house. I spent a couple of years there in comfortable circumstances, meeting many people that were interesting. One of the people I met there was Sydney Pollack, when he came down for some sort of film conference.
JC: So you saw him after all these years in Cuba?
WN: Yeah. I saw him at this conference. He, later, made a film about Cuba, Havana. Then, Ellie suffered illness and she was in the hospital in Cuba. Her father was a lawyer, and he had arranged things so that she could come back to a hospital here in Los Angeles. I thought at the airport that she was so ill that I would never see her again, but the hospital was excellent and she recovered. I continued to stay down there.
JC: So you were in Cuba while she was back in the U.S?
JC: And I take it, you weren’t Cuban, because I know you can’t leave the country if you’re a citizen.
WN: Actually, we were Nicaraguan citizens. The Nicaraguans had given us passports. I wanted to come back to the states and so the Cubans were fine with it. So I went on a plane to Nicaragua with the Nicaraguan passport. I intended to go up to Mexico, and then, get up to the border in Tijuana, where you can just drive over.
Of course, I was nervous, and I thought it would turn into a disaster, but it didn’t. I took a plane up to Mexico City, and then, from there, to Tijuana. My daughters came down and picked me up and drove across the border, and that was it for foreign travels.
JC: Were you able to become a U.S. citizen?
WN: Well, see, when you’re a citizen, you’re a citizen and they can’t cancel your citizenship. The only thing they could do is arrest you for some crime that you’ve done and have a trial, and then have proof of it in the course of a trial. Ellie’s father, as a lawyer, was very aware of the specifics. Also, her brother, is a lawyer and worked for the district attorney’s office, so their research showed that the government did not intend to or were unable to bring specific charges of purchasing these weapons at that time, and putting them on this pickup truck, and loading that pickup truck to go to Holland. They didn’t have that specific paperwork. They didn’t put out an arrest warrant on me. So it just kind of dwindled away.
JC: What did you do back in the US?
WN: My son said, “Well, pop, you’re retired. Why don’t you do something?” He had an art gallery friend. So I did paintings, a hell a lot of paintings, and there was a show of them at the Santa Monica gallery place. It got a good review for the LA Times and some art magazine also gave a good review, far better than the painting deserved. However, nobody has wanted to buy them, so I got rid of my hobby.
The guy from the little theater where I did my plays, named Phil Mishkin, had heard I was back, and he called up and he talked to Mike Wise who had been my agent. Mike talked to me about two different projects.
First, he put together a deal where I went to see a producer, I’ve forgotten his name, and they had a story about three over the hill western characters who are hired by a lady they used to know because a bad guy was gonna extort money out of her and kill her or something like that. So from the point of view that westerns are sort of action-packed tough things, I had formed a little story outline. So I went to the meeting, and I sat in the office. And there was a film called Grumpy Old Men with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau which had been successful. The producer began trying to switch this around to kind of the cutes. He thought it was funny that these old duffers are hired by this lady. So I said, “Well, I think you guys want a different writer, not me.” So I got up and left. I apologized later to Mike for the fact that he tried to get a paying job for me and I just screwed it up with my opinions.
Second, Phil, from the little theater, and Mike, my agent, thought I should do a screenplay of the whole adventure in Ireland, Nicaragua and Cuba. Phil was good friends and worked with Rob Reiner. Rob, before he got to be successful in television, acted in the little theater where Phil and I had done work before. Phil talked to Rob Reiner, and eventually he was trying to get a production going. He was going to get Richard Dreyfuss to play the role of me. Mary Steenburgen would play Ellie. Richard Dreyfuss said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” Rob Reiner said, “No, I don’t like anything to do with guns.” So that was the end of that.
I never felt right about it. In fact, I just didn’t want to do it. But Mike talked me into it, and it never went any place. But all right, that’s enough sad stories. Here’s one story I’ll end on just for fun.
Here’s the idea here. What if there’s this fur trapper, and he’s got this load of furs and he’s going to take them in and sell them? He runs into a guy who’s got a pedal sewing machine in the back of his wagon. He’s making pants out of old canvas- canvas sails and canvas wagon covers.This is related to Levi Strauss, the historic figure, who did that in San Francisco. He started making pants out of old sails. Now, there’s a lady that’s driving this wagon for him. It’s a Mormon lady, and she’s on the run. She was the seventh wife of this bearded old guffer. Then, the African American slave, who’s escaped, comes into the story when he wants the fur trapper to teach him how to cheat at cards.
Then, the scalphunters, the bad guys, and some confederate deserters are encountered. The confederate deserters say, “Why the hell should we be fighting this war for rich plantation owners? They never owned any slaves, and the land was too steep to plow.” There was a Northern Louisiana movement that I’ve read about who were anti-war confederate people. That’s who these deserters would be based on. So out of that, episodic western event, I would try to do Scalphunters II.
Postscript: William Wallace “Bill” Norton, Jr died in October 1, 2010 and as far as I know his ashes were scattered in Ireland. A very accomplished individual, revolutionary and Republican Socialist.